I do not care for most Richard Strauss operas (the exception is “Ariadne auf Naxos”), though I like his 19th-century orchestral music and his orchestral songs, especially the last three.
Having surveyed the discography of the reigning greatest heroic soprano, Christine Brewer, I had to spin the recording by her, baritone/bass Eric Owens, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Donald Runnicles.
In retrospect “Salome” with a German libretto based on Oscar Wilde’s play written in French is the first of Strauss’s “stage tone poems,” operas in which the orchestra’s colors and its development of themes rival in importance and at times dominate the vocal aspects of the work. Strauss had made his reputation with tone poems such as “Death and Transfiguration,” “Don Juan, “Don Quixote,” and had written earlier unsuccessful operas, “Guntram,” and “Feuersnot.” In 1905 Strauss played the music, except for the not-yet written Dance of the Seven Veils for Gustav Mahler, who was impressed.
Strauss’s opera met the same revulsion and censorship as Wilde’s play. At the first piano rehearsal, the singers of the original Dresden cast tried to resign en masse – all except for the tenor singing Herod, who had memorized his part and wanted a return on the investment of time and effort. The soprano delayed learning her role until Strauss threatened to give the premiere to another company. Vienna banned the work, and the composer had to employ all his persuasive charm to persuade the Kaiser into allowing a Berlin performance.
With the success of the opera, and the Dance of the Seven Veils in particular, Strauss largely abandoned writing instrumental music to write for voice and orchestra. In addition to that, the recording also includes the final scene in which Salome has the head of John the Baptist (Jochanaan) that she demanded from King Herod in return for the dance. She smears his blood on her in frenzy and then is crushed on the king’s orders.
The final scene is excerpted in concert performances with or even more than the dance music.
The disc opens with a curse that Brewer sings rather than shrieks and continues with Elektra, on the edge of madness, and her brother Orestes recognizing each other. First, he tells her Orestes is dead, and after a vocal outpouring of mourning and announcement of the decision to slay her mother (Klymenestra) with the same ax she used to slay their father (Agamemnon) upon his return from the Trojan war (and his sacrificing their daughter Iphegenia to get the wind to carry the fleet…)
Strauss’s music for “Elektra” is more dissonant than that for the other willful heroine, Salome. The recognition scene is a genuine duet. Elektras tend to shriek, both on stage and in recordings of the opera. Brewer manages to sing the part. Eric Owen has less abrasive music to sing as Orestes (whose madness from being pursued by the Furies for matricide lies further ahead in the Oresteia of Aeschylus/Aiskhuloss).
This is followed on the disc by the moonlight interlude from Strauss’s last opera, the one-act (1940-41) “Capriccio” – one with gorgeous music but not much plot, the one I like second best (“Ariadne auf Naxos” is the only Strauss opera I actually like, try as I have to understand why so many people I know love “Rosenkavalier”…). The heroine, the Countess, goes out onto a moonlit balcony to consider her choice among her lovers. A plangent solo horn dominates the brief interlude.
“Die Frau ohne Schatten” (The Woman without a Shadow) is another opera in which I like Hugo van Hoffmanstahl’s libretto but cannot get into the music with which Strauss set it. The duet that Brewer and Owen recorded comes from the beginning of the last act in which Barak, the Dyer, and his wife are imprisoned in adjoining cells bewailing their stupidities, including the wife agreeing to sell her shadow to the Empress and reneging on the deal. They move on to sing devotion to each other before the excerpt ends.
Brewer and Owens sing with passion and without screaming. Both have big voices that can also deliver soft passages gorgeously. (Owens originated the part of Gen. Groves in John Adams’s “Dr. Atomic,” the narrator in Adams’s “A Flowering Tree” and is on the recordings of both. He also originated the part of Grendel in the opera of the same name written by Elliot Golldenthal that is not yet on CD or DVD. I think he would make a great “Der fliegende Holländer” Wagner’s Flying Dutchman)
he friend who pressed the disc on me said the Telarc engineers are magicians, making the Atlanta Symphony sound much better than it does in concert. Perhaps some of the credit should go to the Atlanta Symphony’s Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles, who was Music Director and Principal Conductor of the San Francisco Opera from 1992 to 2009 and is now Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Generalmusikdirektor of the Deutsche Oper Berlin.