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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Feuersnot, Op.50 [113.00]
Nicola Beller Carbone (soprano) – Diemut; Dietrich Henschel (baritone) – Kunrad; Anna Maria Sarra (contralto) - Margret; Valentina Vitti (soprano) - Walpurg; Christine Knorren (mezzo) - Elsbeth; Chiara Fracasso (contralto) - Wigelis; Alex Wawiloff (tenor) – Schweiker; Cristiano Olivieri (tenor) - Tulbeck; Francesco Parrino (tenor) - Aspeck; Nicolò Ceriani (baritone) - Hamerlein; Rubén Amoretti (bass) - Sentlinger; Michail Ryssov (bass) - Poschel; Paolo Battaglia (baritone) - Kofel; Paolo Orecchia (bass) – Gilgenstock; Francesca Martorana (spoken) – Maiden
Orchestra, Chorus and Youth Chorus of the Teatro Massimo/Gabriele Ferro
rec. Teatro Massimo, Palermo, 2014
extras: The Making of Feuersnot [13.00]
ARTHAUS MUSIK Blu-ray 109066 [126.00]

Unlike many modern celebrities, who resort to the use privacy laws through the courts to prevent press intrusion into their personal lives, Richard Strauss was never averse to revealing his own most intimate details on the stage. Apart from the avowedly autobiographical Sinfonia domestica and the opera Intermezzo, he presented Ein Heldenleben as a sort of artistic biography of his own musical career. Feuersnot too can be seen as testimony to his musical indebtedness to Wagner, whom he deliberately quotes during the course of Kunrad’s address to the townspeople of Munich as part of his own claim to be their heir of the ‘master’. In view of this, the updating of this production to what appears to be modern times can be fully justified even when sometimes the details may jar. No attempt is however made to make Kunrad actually look like Strauss himself. One wonders whether Strauss’s redoubtable wife Pauline would have welcomed or indeed tolerated any such identification.

The back of the Blu-ray box claims this to be the “world première recording” of the opera, which the booklet clearly admits to be incorrect when it refers to previous audio recordings even while acknowledging that these “can be counted on one hand”. I reviewed the latest of these CD offerings a few months back, and took the opportunity then not only to compare it with its predecessors but also to make some recommendations between the various performances available. This disc is however the only representation of the opera in video and so falls largely outside the field of such purely musical comparisons.

The production by Emma Dante sticks pretty closely to the original scenario by Ernst von Wolzogen, with only occasional departures from the stage directions — Diemut comes down from her room to field the demands from the crowd that she yield her virginity, bring then drawn up into Kunrad’s arms by the same means that she used for his humiliation — which serve rather to emphasise than detract from the meaning of the text. What Dante does do is to superimpose a team of balletic extras who serve to flesh out the size of the crowd, impersonate the restoration of fire at the end by means of a stylised orgy, and generally give a more polished choreography to the central waltz episode of the score. However at the beginning, while the orchestra are tuning up, she adds an extensive prologue where, after Kunrad has scattered pages from his score into the orchestra pit, the dancers are called upon to mimic the players in a series of mimed tableaux which go on far too long to avoid boredom. These preliminaries, which last over eleven minutes, can be avoided since they are separately tracked, so the actual music is not affected.

The cast is a good one. Dietrich Henschel as Kunrad, who has by far the lion’s share of the singing, wears his years lightly and still looks plausible as a lover — the notion of the townspeople deliberately sacrificing the virginity of a young maiden to obtain the favours of a powerful magician has uncomfortable overtones nowadays. Henschel’s voice has an uncanny resemblance to that of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in its tonal projection but at the same time he also suffers from that singer’s occasional bumpiness of line and his lack of really solid bass notes in the lower and middle registers. He sounds less secure when he has been hoisted up into mid-air but that is perhaps not so surprising when the singer has the threat of vertigo to contend with. The part of Kunrad is a long one in such a short opera, and Henschel seems to show some signs of tiredness by the end – his burnished tone loses some of its sheen. Here some listeners may prefer Bernd Weikl on the Fricke set, when Weikl had the advantage of being able to indulge in multiple takes to ease the strain. In the context of a staged performance I cannot imagine that anyone could do much better.

Nicola Beller Carbone as his lover — or is she his prey? — is rather less satisfactory. This role really needs a pure-toned virginal voice which only slowly develops into a full-blown Straussian soprano. In the Leinsdorf recording Gundula Janowitz is more or less ideal. Carbone is quite simply not in the same league: somewhat too vibrato-laden at the start, and then developing elements of unsteadiness and a touch of shrillness of tone towards the end. She acts well — in the accompanying documentary we see her responding with real understanding to the direction of Dante — but the sense of development in the character is missing. The supporting cast, mainly Italians, are all very good, and the chorus is full-bodied and excellent. The children’s chorus too, although sometimes the German text sounds rather mechanically delivered, have lots of perky character. Gabriele Ferro conducts with great passion, and the orchestral playing is generally responsive and pointed. One is intrigued to note the occasional anticipations of later scores, including (oddly enough) some themes that were to be developed in Elektra. The rather placid audience respond with decidedly luke-warm applause, which should have been more enthusiastic. It nearly dies away altogether during the long series of solo curtain calls.

When reviewing the Schirmer CPO CD set of Feuersnot I recommended that version to newcomers in part because it was the only recording to supply a full text and translation. Ernst von Wolzogen’s libretto is no literary masterpiece, and its attempts at humour are often crudely heavy-handed but it helps even more to hear this work with well-handled subtitles, since the music is closely linked to the words. The production often helps to point these attributes up even more clearly. The camera angles are carefully chosen, and with so much going on it is a major tribute to the direction that we miss so little. There is no problem with any decision as to where to break the continuous flow of the music between discs. Indeed this video recording could well be the first point of approach for those previously unacquainted with what is after all a work of Strauss’s highest maturity, and one which even if it does not rise to the heights of the operas which were to follow has many incidental felicities. If the listener programmes the player to omit the opening sequence he or she will be in for a thoroughly enjoyable time.

Paul Corfield Godfrey



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