Friday, 1 August 2014

Business as usual

An examination of questions raised by the Strauss anniversary
[From OPERA, August 2014, pp. 955-962]

For as long as there have been anniversaries, it seems, composers’ champions have bemoaned the way in which they have been celebrated, prompting questions of what—if anything—their purpose should be. Traditionally, they provide an opportunity for dusting off rarities. However, in 2014 poor 300-year-old, seldom-performed Gluck is all but absent from the British stage (the Buxton Festival has bucked the trend with its Orfeo ed Euridice, which Scottish Opera also stages next summer). For Richard Strauss, on the whole, it seems largely to be a case of repertoire as usual—certainly in the UK—just perhaps a little more of it.

Beyond its new Frau ohne Schatten, the Royal Opera has celebrated with revivals of Elektra and Ariadne auf Naxos (plus, at a push, last summer’s concert performances of Capriccio); Glyndebourne has staged Der Rosenkavalier; the Proms offers that Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier semi-staged, plus Elektra and Salome; NI Opera tackles Salome early in 2015. One exception will be at Garsington, which, after having served rare Strauss well in the late 1990s, will present Intermezzo next summer—and that work, admittedly, has also been seen in recent years at Buxton and Scottish Opera. (There is no Strauss scheduled in the foreseeable future at ENO, which last tackled one of his operas, Der Rosenkavalier, in 2012.)

The picture across the Atlantic is similar. The Met’s 2013-14 season included Frau, Rosenkavalier and Arabella. Various other usual suspects are dotted around the US schedules; Chicago’s Capriccio is an honourable exception, as was a New York concert performance of Feuersnot, courtesy of Leon Botstein and his American Symphony Orchestra (whom we also have to thank for modern recordings, on Telarc, of Die aegyptische Helena and Die Liebe der Danae).

In mainland Europe, of course, the situation is more complex, but it is still striking how the rarities remain, well, just that: there is no production of Danae, no Helena, no Friedenstag or Guntram. Stagings of Die schweigsame Frau are a little thin on the ground (a new production in Essen next year is joined by a revival of Barrie Kosky’s Munich staging; the Chemnitz production on which cpo’s recent recording was based was also revived earlier this year). The anniversary year’s only fully-staged Feuersnot was at Palermo’s Teatro Massimo; it was complemented in June, around the time of Strauss’s birthday, by a concert performance of the piece in Vienna’s Volksoper and a semi-staged version given in the courtyard of Dresden’s Residenz, under the auspices not of the Semperoper—that Straussian institution par excellence—but of the Dresden Festival. The Semperoper has, however, performed Guntram in concert, and in November puts on its own mini-festival, featuring Capriccio, Daphne and Arabella (in the poorly-received Florentine Klepper production unveiled at this year’s Salzburg Easter Festival). Daphne does reasonably well elsewhere, too, with further new anniversary-year stagings in Toulouse and Brussels. The main Salzburg Festival, meanwhile, could be accused of playing it safe with a new Rosenkavalier (albeit one in the hands of Harry Kupfer).

Alexander Pereira, the outgoing Salzburg boss, has expressed a reluctance to play the anniversary game, and of course no one is under any obligation to do anything special to mark an anniversary. However, the fact that so many institutions are claiming to do so, but are doing so without doing what we usually expect anniversaries to do, is surely worth exploring. And the fact is that the situation as regards the position of Strauss’s operas in the repertory has changed little since the composer’s last major anniversary 15 years ago. At that time, in a feature ahead of Garsington’s bold staging of Die aegyptische Helena, Rodney Milnes could announce that ‘Today Arabella and Capriccio are repertory pieces, Frau ohne Schatten is done everywhere, and there are those (few, admittedly) who believe Intermezzo to be his best opera.’ In a polemical article published in these pages a few years after that, Robin Holloway even put forward a case for Capriccio as ‘the most perfect of Strauss’s stage works’; Helena, incidentally, he dismissed as a ‘tired old jade that hasn’t made it into general repertory even in these times when almost anything goes’.

But, after the flurry of performances around 1999, are we really in a time ‘when almost anything goes?’ Can Capriccio, still often dependent on being championed by a diva such as Renée Fleming, really be counted a repertoire piece? One definite truth is that Die Frau ohne Schatten retains a strong position, as this season demonstrates: apart from the Royal Opera’s Claus Guth staging (first seen, of course, in Milan) and the Met’s revival of Herbert Wernicke’s staging in the autumn, 2014-15 will have witnessed Krzysztof Warlikowski’s new Munich production, plus several other new German stagings (Leipzig, Kassel, Gelsenkirchen, Saarbrücken). Straussians can only be thankful for this profusion of Frauen, but the opera’s newfound ubiquity has, if anything, also made us ungrateful—it is no longer counted the rarity it once was. 

Strauss scholarship—which has been doing its best to change attitudes towards the composer in the last few decades, putting forward a revisionist account of his career—might have played some role in helping secure Frau’s position. That revisionist account re-characterizes his post-Elektra ‘volte-face’ less as a retreat from the avant-garde, for which the composer was for a while a (distinctly reluctant) figurehead, than an exploration, in Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos in particular, of a kind of post-modernism avant la lettre. (The way in which Die Frau ohne Schatten, arguably the finest achievement of a Strauss in resolutely un-post-modern mode, fits in here is more complex.) Beyond this, Intermezzo, it has been argued, looks forward to film techniques in its rapid, quickly flowing scenes; Die aegyptische Helena was a Zeitoper with its finger very much on the pulse. Friedenstag, we are now told (contrary to earlier critiques), represents an act of resistance against the Nazis. At the other end of Strauss’s career, Feuersnot has been demonstrated to be an essential stepping-stone to Salome, away from the Wagnerian philosophizing that (along with the difficulty of its title role) makes Guntram probably the least salvageable of all the Strauss operas.  

The problem remains, though, that you cannot fill a theatre on the back of musicological defences alone, however persuasive many of these arguments are; and it’s perhaps understandable that some opera-lovers find, say, the voyeurism of Intermezzo, or the ironic self-reflection that informs so many of Strauss’s operas less appealing than the more visceral, un-ironic drama of other works contemporary with mid-period Strauss—by Janáček, for example. Few will argue with Kasper Holten, I’d imagine, when he suggests that The Makropoulos Case or From the House of the Dead—neither of which has ever been seen at Covent Garden—would be more deserving of a Royal Opera staging than some lesser-known Strauss. The operas of Korngold and Schreker also, as Holten notes, vie for attention among the profusion of works from the period—and those composers certainly have their claims bolstered by political reasons.

A pragmatic Holten further explains that, in basic bums-on-seats terms, Strauss can be problematic. In London at least, he suggests, the operas can be split into four categories, with only Der Rosenkavalier fitting into the top, ‘popular’ one. Salome and Elektra—still in terms of PR able to ride their century-old wave of controversy—constitute a second category. Die Frau ohne Schatten and Ariadne fill the third semi-canonical one, with the rest of the works essentially in a fourth. And Covent Garden’s director of opera expresses a certain sense of disappointment that the enormous effort taken to put on a critically-acclaimed production of Die Frau ohne Schatten was not matched at the box office. ‘When we finally did the piece in Denmark,’ he tells me, ‘everybody was queuing up to see it.’ Oper Frankfurt’s Bernd Loebe feels similarly proud of his company’s recent revivals of Frau, but also admits it’s often hard to sell. Even when a bona-fide Strauss house such as Vienna’s Staatsoper staged its Robert Carsen production of the piece for the first time in 1999, there were unsold seats. In Strauss’s home town of Munich, though, the Bayerische Staatsoper’s new production did sell out in its opening run in the autumn.

Die Frau ohne Schatten is famous for the demands it makes on an opera house’s resources, but the majority of Strauss’s operas—regardless of the subject matter or tone—also tend to need outstanding singers, plus a lot of players, playing a lot of notes. In an essay written for the 100th anniversary of Strauss’s birth, the stern Frankfurt-school theorist Theodor Adorno—one of the composer’s most astute critics, at least once one gets beyond the occasionally impenetrable philosophical armour—wrote that Strauss was ‘the first composer to adopt the gesture of the idealized big industrialist. He does not need to scrimp; his means are highly expendable. He does not need to check his books: production goes on without a care.’ For the Marxist Adorno, this was in part a critique of how Strauss shamelessly partook in capitalism—not just ideologically but also, in practical terms, in his work on behalf of copyright and composers’ rights.

The point about the expendability of Strauss’s means holds, though, and it reflects the fact that he was largely composing in an operatic economy that was very different from ours, when opera houses’ means were also a great deal more expendable. There are further issues, too, as Milnes noted in his Helena essay. ‘If you are amongst the most successful composers of your generation,’ he observes, ‘then you write for the greatest singers of that generation … and that can make it extremely difficult for casting directors of future generations.’ Garsington’s production was counted a great success, cast carefully within its means. When it was felt a modern match for the first Helena, Elisabeth Rethberg (or the first Helena in New York, Maria Jeritza), had been found in Deborah Voigt, however, even that didn’t help the Metropolitan Opera’s 2007 production.

The musical difficulty of the operas is often also matched by their literary complexity. Hofmannsthal, of course, is the original bogeyman in this regard, and was for a long time implicitly—if not explicitly—held responsible for Strauss’s undignified retreat from the front line of modernism to explore decorous historicism in Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne, impenetrable allegory in Die Frau ohne Schatten and misguided levity in Die aegyptische Helena, and to attempt to recapture former glories in Arabella (‘so patently second brew from [Der Rosenkavalier’s] silvery teapot’, as Holloway put it). This of course ties in with the now-largely-discredited narrative of post-Elektra decline, but charges against Hofmannsthal’s wordiness, philosophical complexity, and general evasiveness (in both his life and his work) persist. Despite his best efforts, the librettist regularly struggled to hold back the tide of his own enormous erudition and learning that threatened to engulf his collaborations with Strauss: we probably have the composer’s pragmatism to thank for the fact that Die Frau ohne Schatten, to pick the most obvious example, was ever completed.

It’s fascinating to speculate where Strauss’s collaboration with Hofmannsthal would have gone after Arabella, had the latter not died suddenly in 1929—and to wonder, too, how different that opera would have been had the librettist survived to revise the final two acts. Certainly Hofmannsthal, had he lived, would have given the Nazis an even greater headache than did Stefan Zweig, Strauss’s next librettist. (Hofmannsthal’s own Jewish heritage could be conveniently ignored after his death.) The events surrounding the 1935 premiere of Zweig and Strauss’s Die schweigsame Frau—during which both the librettist and, to a lesser extent, the composer fell foul of the regime—are well documented, and the fortunes of the piece have arguably never recovered. A charming comedy based on Ben Jonson (and surely a gift for one of the London houses), it nevertheless suffers from Strauss’s reluctance to tailor his musical means to the dramatic ends. And its appeal is by no means universal: Loebe declares himself indifferent to its ‘crampy’ humour, and although Kosky’s Munich production sold out in its first run, in the Prinzregententheater, it will be interesting to see how it fares in its revival in the much larger Nationaltheater.

Strauss then ended up with Joseph Gregor, his third Austrian librettist, of whom he had a famously low opinion. Gregor was a theatre historian and for his two main operas with Strauss, Daphne and Die Liebe der Danae (which itself has its roots in a plan by Hofmannsthal), Strauss’s trusted friend Clemens Krauss was called upon to suggest changes to bring the librettos out of the library and into the theatre. Gregor failed in Danae’s libretto to make the various mythical sources cohere, but David Blewitt was right, when reviewing the opera’s 1999 outing at Garsington, to conclude that ‘Danae may be no masterpiece, but it can boast some of the finest music Strauss ever penned’. He further notes that ‘thematically it is thoroughly contemporary’—now, one might add, more so than ever. (Kirsten Harms’s recent Deutsche Oper production, available on Arthaus DVD and Blu-ray, further emphasizes the contemporary relevance of its love-before-money message.)

There are different difficulties with Daphne, one of which is the nature of its heroine, whose transition from an initial passivity to even greater passivity is almost the exact opposite of the transformation undergone by many of the great female characters in the Strauss-Hofmannsthal operas. The shimmering beauties of the exquisitely crafted score cannot, perhaps, make up for the lack of drama. As a result, it seems, it can be a hard sell: Frankfurt’s critically-acclaimed Claus Guth production achieves roughly 75 per cent audiences on its revivals. (Friedenstag, originally conceived as Daphne’s companion piece, and worked out in clandestine collaboration with Zweig, on whose idea it was based, remains probably, with the exception of Guntram, the hardest sell of all.)

By a similar token, if in certain senses Holloway is right about the perfectness of Capriccio, that opera (with a libretto by Strauss and Krauss) is arguably too clever, too self-reflexive and too much an opera about opera to appeal to a wider audience. A similar problem, at the other end of Strauss’s oeuvre, exists with Feuersnot. The piece teems with rich melodies, brilliant orchestration and fascinating pre-echoes of later works, and is suffused, with its trenchant critique of petty bourgeois morality and conservatism, with a bracing sense of the new century. But both its score and the libretto (by the satirist Ernst von Wolzogen) are full of in-jokes, puns and allusions that must have passed much of the audience by even in 1901, let alone in 2014. 

Beyond the issues already raised, there’s another vexed question, one whose apparently subjective nature means that it is carefully avoided in musicological discourse but passionately embraced and debated elsewhere—that of actual quality. Strauss is a composer who can polarize opera-lovers still today, for an array of complex reasons both political and musical. But there is also, it seems, residual suspicion regarding the fact that he was a fully professional composer, who essentially treated his vocation as such, rising early to be at his desk and put in a full day’s work. He had little time for the Romantic clichés regarding inspiration, dictation from above and the like—at least in regard to himself: he made an exception with regard to his beloved Mozart.

In what few public proclamations he made, he maintained a self-deprecating persona, and it’s possible to argue that this, his humble (if always, one suspects, slightly tongue-in-cheek) acknowledgement of his modest position in relation to his great predecessors, made him a far more ‘modern’ composer than those who clung onto the (Romantic) illusion of ‘greatness’. But it also makes his works particularly susceptible to charges of note-spinning, of his producing (to extend Adorno’s industrialist metaphor) counterpoint by the yard, melisma by the metre. In some cases this charge is perhaps unfair (and when we read in a letter to Hofmannsthal of his concern he might be ‘note-spinning’ in the final pages of Die Frau ohne Schatten, the German word is ‘musizieren’, which doesn’t carry quite the same negative connotations). It is worth remembering, too, that the effect of the favourite passages of Strauss is always greater in context: it can’t be Rosenkavalier Trios and Recognition Scenes all the way. But in other cases it is impossible to deny drops in inspiration, the occasional need for cuts—even if it’s less the composer’s fault, perhaps, than his librettists’.

Ultimately, though, in the cold light of today’s straitened operatic climate, it’s the basic business case for so much rare Strauss that doesn’t quite add up. Of course one could argue that it’s a matter of chicken and egg: opera houses need to present persuasive productions of Die Liebe der Danae, for example, in the first place to give the audience the appetite. The danger is that, as with Die Frau ohne Schatten, such productions will attract only the passionate minority, and not the all-important intrigued majority that will make the necessary revivals viable. Oper Frankfurt has recently chosen the sensible middle ground in opting for concert performances of Danae this season and Die aegyptische Helena in 2014-15, and disappointment that such works can’t be experienced even in that format in the UK is probably justified.

Holten, however, hints at some hope for the future: ‘If we’re to be very crude about it,’ he admits, ‘in 2019 Strauss goes out of copyright. I’m sure opera directors around the world are sitting there and anxiously waiting for Strauss to become a free for all, and for us not to have to pay quite a sizeable amount from our box office to the Strauss estate.’ I wonder if Strauss would appreciate the irony if, in the end, it took the expiration of the rights he fought so hard to establish to save great swathes of his 

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