WDBX Opera Overnight – All Strauss, all the time

Tonight we heard two pieces by Richard Strauss that I had been trying to incorporate into the show for several months now.  The fact that I am playing them both on the same night is really just happenstance – the way things fell, they fit together pretty nicely.

Strauss with his wife and son, 1910.

Strauss with his wife and son, 1910. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first work of the evening is Die Frau Ohne Schatten (“The Woman Without a Shadow”).  Strauss began composition in 1911, working hand-in-hand with his frequent librettist Hugo von Hoffmansthall, who used a variety of sources, ranging from several works by Goethe to Grimm’s fairy tales and portions of the Arabian Nights set of tales.  But the composition became an extended effort, and was not completed until 1915.  Then, as Europe was in the midst of war, the piece would not be produced until 1919.  When this finally occurred, it met with mixed reaction.  The libretto was complicated and highly symbolic (something that Hoffmansthal had fought to maintain in the face of attempted changes by Strauss), the score was written for a 164 piece orchestra, and the staging is complicated and difficult, even for modern opera companies (one scene calls for children singing out of a frying pan).  Moreover, the opera calls for five top singers in the primary roles and first-rate singers in the secondary roles, something which is prohibitively expensive.

Yet, even with all these cons weighing against the work, the music itself ranks among Strauss’ most compelling works.  Strauss used a similar style of musical dreamscape to that which he achieved with Der Rosenkavalier (also written in 1911), replacing the waltzes and neo-classical staging with a sort of Wagnerian heft that few other composers could hope to achieve.  Yet the music was distinctly that of Richard Strauss, carrying stylistic tags that one hears in many of his works, operatic and otherwise.  So, while the opera is rarely staged, it is musically one of his best.

Tonight’s recording is a 1988 edition that features Rene Kollo, Cheryl Studer, Hanna Schwarz, Andreas Schmidt, and Alfred Muff, with Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra & Chorus.

Theaterzettel zur Premiere der Richard-Strauss...

Playbill from the Premiere of Salome, Semper-Oper Dresden, 9. December 1905 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our second opera of the evening is Salome, an opera in one act.  Strauss based the opera on his own translation into German translation of Oscar Wilde’s French play Salomé.  Wilde’s play was itself controversial, but the controversy was far exceeded by the December 1905 premier of Strauss’ opera.  In 1905, the controversy was caused by Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils“, essentially a striptease that many modern performers finish nude (others finish it in a body stocking).  This caused the work to be banned in London and New York, and Gustav Mahler was not allowed to conduct it in Vienna until 1918.  In our modern times, audience members may not be as startled by Salome’s dance as they are by the final scene, in which she famously received the beheaded head of John the Baptist (“Joachanaan” in the opera) on a silver platter and kisses it.

Richard Strauss München, 1910

Poster for a week-long festival of music by Richard Strauss, held in München, 1910. Salome is depicted holding a staff.

The title role is usually sung by dramatic sopranos (the sort usually heard in Wagnerian works), and is unusually demanding for sopranos in general.  The range goes from high B, normal for a dramatic soprano or a mezzo soprano, to a low G flat at the lowest, which normally falls in the contralto range.  Mezzos who attempt to sing this role strain to sing the higher parts, and are exhausted by the finale, which is crucial to the opera.  Hence, the soprano who is able to sing this role has to have sufficient strength to withstand the rigors of the role, leading to its popularity for dramatic sopranos.

Another interesting aspect of the role is the dance requirement established by the Dance of the Seven Veils.  The dance is such that one could easily be required to be a ballerina as well as a top dramatic soprano.  Historically, a number of sopranos have used body doubles (the creator of the role, Marie Wittich, refused both the dance and the kiss of Jochannaan’s severed head, saying “I won’t do it; I’m a decent woman.”), although some notable sopranos (i.e. Catherine Malfitano, and most recently Karina Matilla) have performed the dance themselves and finished in the nude.  But the situation, along with the vocal requirements, demonstrate the contradiction (also present in a number of Wagnerian roles) between the character’s description (that of a young woman), and the requirement for a soprano with years of training and seasoning that allow her to be able to handle the immense technical requirements of the role.

The famously dissonant chord and cadence occurring at the end of Salome's monologue at the end of the opera Salome (1905) by Richard Strauss.

Another thing of note in the opera again comes in the infamous finale.  After Salome kisses Jochannaan’s severed head, the score calls for a most unusual chord.  Marked in the reduced score shown above by the sfz marking (sfz = sforzando, a note with a sudden, strong emphasis – the word in Italian literally means “forcing”), the chord has been referred to as “the most sickening chord in all opera”, an “epoch-making dissonance with which Strauss takes Salome…to the depth of degradation”, and “the quintessence of Decadence: here is ecstasy falling in upon itself, crumbling into the abyss”.  The chord is polytonal, with a low A7 merged in with a higher F sharp major chord.  It forms part of a cadence in C sharp major, and is approached and resolved from C sharp major chords.  This is representative of Strauss’ use of keys and lietmotifs to represent characters and their feelings and emotions, and the revulsion inspired by Salome’s actions is reflected in this startling chord.

Birgit Nilsson as Salome, year unknown

Birgit Nilsson as Salome, year unknown

(Don’t get the impression that, because I talk so much about Birgit Nilsson and the title role, that the opera is all Salome.  Fact is, Jochannaan is also a premium role that requires a strong voice.  Eberhard Wächter sings rather well in this recording.  But Strauss had a tendency to emphasize the female roles, and here is no different.)

Tonight’s recording is considered one of the best available recordings of the work, featuring the legendary Birgit Nilsson (yet another work that this great soprano was noted for) in a 1962 performance that also features Gerhard Stolze as Herod, Grace Hoffman, and Eberhard Wächter as Jochannaan.  Sir Georg Solti leads the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

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