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December 16, 2013 5:39 pm
Richard Strauss’s Feuersnot, exhumed by Leon Botstein and his American Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, is a fascinating but frustrating comedy of eros. Completed in 1901 and spanning 90 long minutes, it finds the composer shamelessly self-indulgent though wildly daring. The sacred Grove Dictionary calls the piece a “ribald exercise in snook cocking”. If, as an American suspects, the image suggests nose thumbing, it is apt.
The US has seen little of Feuersnot – a disastrous premiere in Philadelphia 86 years ago followed by a workshop production at the Manhattan School in 1985 and a Santa Fe effort three years later. Under the circumstances, one salutes Botstein for his enterprise. Too bad expressive persuasion seldom supports his noble intentions.
Ernst von Wolzogen’s in-jokey libretto evolves around Kunrad, a mysterious medieval sorcerer who turns out to be a thinly disguised portrait of Strauss himself. Mocked by the Munich burghers and spurned by Diemut, the virgin he loves, he issues a curse that extinguishes all fire, ergo light and warmth. The curse is ecstatically lifted, however, when the chastised virgin welcomes the misunderstood genius to her bed. The onstage action may not be graphic; the music is.
Strauss’s score fuses thumping raunch with folksy ditties, intricate ensembles, bombastic outbursts, cheap waltzes and lush Wagnerian digressions. An inspired conductor such as Rudolf Kempe, whose Feuersnot I encountered in Munich several lives ago, could maximise Strauss’s pathos yet minimise his vulgarity. Botstein favours forward momentum and high decibels at the expense of nuance and introspection.
The performance was dominated by the baritone Alfred Walker, who treated the endlessly unreasonable demands of Kunrad with endless stentorian fervour (and some odd German vowels). Jacquelyn Wagner’s lovely lyric soprano found Diemut’s dramatic thrusts something of a strain. The strong supporting cast was sympathetically led by Jeffrey Tucker as the mayor. The orchestra coped conscientiously with Strauss’s symphonic sprawl, and the Manhattan Girls Chorus, trained by Michelle Oesterle, sang as if lives were at stake.
Much ado, alas, about not so much.
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