Richard Strauss - Feuersnot
Teatro Massimo, Palermo - 2014
Gabriele Ferro, Emma Dante, Nicola Beller Carbone, Dietrich Henschel, Alex Wawiloff, Rubén Amoretti, Christine Knorren, Chiara Fracasso, Anna Maria Sarra, Michail Ryssov, Nicolò Ceriani, Paolo Battaglia
Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray
History hasn't been kind to Richard Strauss's first two operas Guntram (1894) and Feuersnot (1901), both of them better known now by reputation than through actual performance. It's common knowledge then that the influence of Wagner was still very present in Strauss's early operas, slavishly so in Guntram, self-consciously in Feuersnot. That would change definitively in the operas that follow, Strauss finding his own voice in Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier, but that doesn't mean that there aren't traces and roots of classic Strauss in those earlier works. Feuersnot, in particular, demonstrates much of what would become great in later Strauss operas.
Not that you would have had much of an opportunity to reevaluate those early Strauss operas, with any performances of Guntram and Feuersnot, even in the year of the Richard Strauss centenary, tending to be concert performances. One welcome exception, thankfully recorded and preserved for release on Blu-ray, is the rare staging of Feuersnot at the Teatro Massino in Palermo in 2014. Directed by Emma Dante and conducted by Gabriele Ferro, it's a thoughtful and entertaining production that plays to the strengths of the work, at the same time as it manages to overcome many of the problems that might prevent it being staged more often.
The main problem with staging Feuersnot, I imagine, is that it's hard to know quite how to pitch Strauss's undoubtedly self-indulgent attempt at parody in the work, and actually make it entertaining. It's difficult to judge and pitch the work as a Strauss opera when it is so self-consciously Wagnerian. The danger is that you will think that Strauss is being far too clever for his own good, a bit of a show-off, immodestly writing a work on the model of Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg in which he sets himself up as the "true heir" to Wagner, as well as regarding himself as a bit of a stud. Emma Dante finds a very good way of bringing these ambitions a little more down to earth in her production for the Teatro Massimo.
Feuersnot is a played out as a medieval legend based in a village near Munich. There an apprentice sorcerer, Sir Kunrad, based on Strauss himself, takes his revenge on the people who fail to recognise his talent and his rightful position as the successor to the great Master magician Reichhart Wag'ner, whose great genius also wasn't sufficiently recognised in his own time. Slighted by the people of the village who don't recognise the merit of his powers and his right to express his libidinous urges in public - stealing a kiss from the mayor's daughter Diemut - Kunrad calls a fire famine upon the village during the feast of the Summer Solstice, when the children are preparing to set their celebratory bonfires alight.
Strauss isn't exactly obscure about his intentions in how he sets himself up as the successor to Wagner, but it's hard to know whether he is being either tongue-in-cheek or just immodesty secure of his own talent. Musically, Feuersnot is so cleverly constructed and brilliantly composed that you'd have a hard time denying the evident skill with which Strauss weaves his way through Wagner references and places his own spin on them. That spin, taking Wagner's mythic spiritualism and giving it a more earthy sensuality, could be considered vulgar, but this is entirely in keeping with other Strauss works of this time (Ein Heldenleben in 1898 and Symphonia Domestica in 1903) that would elevate the personal and the domestic to grandiose levels. Or simply find them subjects more worthy and relevant to the general public.
However we regard such behaviour, the brilliance of Strauss' technique and its dramatic application in an opera is plainly evident. It does however lead to a provocative conclusion in Feuersnot that might still be problematic and controversial. Having been subjected to Kunrad's fire famine, the terrified people of the village, and even her own father, urge Diemut to put aside her maidenly honour and get jiggy with Kunrad so that they can rekindle the fire on this Midsummer Night. She and Kunrad do the deed - Strauss bringing a more sensuous physicality to the music than you would find with Wagner - and Diemut, impressed by the prowess of the magician, acknowledges his place as her true master.
The 'legend' of Feuersnot is a thin one, even for a one-act opera (a 'Singgedicht in one act'), with little dramatic drive. Emma Dante however recognises that it's about music and not magic, and brings that not terribly well concealed subtext out in a number of ways. She also attempts to capture the huge variety and dynamic that lies within the score and represent that on the stage with circus acts and dancers to give an impression of constant colour and movement. This can be entertaining and sometimes annoying, but it does certainly bring some liveliness and a certain tongue-in-cheek irreverence that adds to tone and enlivens a staging of work. The final 'fire dance' scene in particular more than justifies the approach, finding a colourful and meaningful way to represent the otherwise problematic ending.
The musical performances all contribute to making this an 'illuminating' production of a rare Strauss opera. Gabriele Ferro underplays the Wagner and emphasises more of the familiar later Strauss characteristics in the score. Nicola Beller Carbone has Wagnerian strength aplenty in the role of Diemut, and although Dietrich Henschel doesn't quite have the force or the volume for a 'heldenbaritone' he sings and plays the role of Kunrad with a mischievous sparkle and verve. None of this is perhaps enough to see Feuersnot reconsidered as canonical Strauss, but it is unquestionably Strauss, and presented in the best possible light here.
The 2014 Teatro Massimo production of Feuersnot is released on Bluray by Arthaus Musik, and it looks and sounds terrific in High Definition. The BD has a 12-minute 'Making Of' that gives some insights into the work and the approach to it, and there is also an informative essay on the work in the enclosed booklet. The disc is region-free, but subtitles are in English, German and Korean only.