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In the wake of Wagner's death in 1883, German opera experienced an artistic void; the man who forever changed music – as an orchestrator, harmonist, and dramatist – was gone, and in the nearly quarter of a century between Wagner's final Parsifal (1882) and Richard Strauss' Salome (1905) there was a veritable operatic collapse in Germany. Who would emerge from Wagner's shadow?
Another Richard, named Strauss, who was gaining such fame that critics were calling him Richard II, but his mentor, and Wagner champion, Hans von Bülow, replied, "we should call him Richard III, for after the titanic Wagner, can there be a direct successor?" Maybe not, but since Wagner, no composer had written so many works for the stage (15 compared to Wagner's 13) and with such variety.
I have published numerous books on Strauss, both on his life and works, and, after recent retirement from Duke, I am looking back at what interested me in the first place, and I can say it was his innate theatricality. Strauss served two masters: Wagner and Mozart. From Wagner he inherited the musical language: the chromatic harmonies, the brilliant orchestration, the evocative Leitmotifs. From Mozart he learned the drama of musical variety and Italianate theatricality. They were the twin towers of Austro-German opera and directly informed his musical voice.
His first success, Salome, was composed for a Europe thirsty for the femme fatale, and Strauss readily gave the scandal-craving audiences what they wanted with its incest, necrophilia, and even dismemberment. Parsifal rejected sexual enticement and was rewarded with redemption; poor John the Baptist refused Salome's sexual overtures and was beheaded.
The opera was, as Strauss cruelly described it, "a scherzo with a tragic ending." The German emperor told Strauss that he had created a catastrophe, and Strauss replied that the royalties from that "catastrophe" paid for his alpine villa in Garmisch. The first opera composed in that villa was for another femme fatale, who lived for only one thing: to kill her mother (Klytemnestra) for murdering her father (Agamemnon). Once her father's murder was avenged, Elektra had nothing to live for and "she drops dead." Salome was sinuous, slippery, and chromatic; Elektra was harsh, angular, and brutally dissonant.
Strauss had had enough, and he bemoaned to his poet, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, that, with Elektra, his tragic vein was depleted, and his librettist obliged with a "Comedy in Three Acts" called Der Rosenkavalier, Strauss' most famous work and the greatest musical comedy for the 20th-century German stage: from blood to hot chocolate, from the House of Atreus to a palace on Vienna's Ringstrasse. But beneath the surface of waltzes and glitter is the Countess who understands the fragility of human relationships far better than her young lover, a Cherubino-like Octavian, the Rose Cavalier. She loves him, but must send him out to learn, so she asks him to deliver a silver rose as a messenger for the Baron Ochs to his young fiancé, Sophie, who immediately falls in love with his messenger.
The Countess' plan worked, but far too quickly, and at the end she laments: "I chose to love Octavian in the right way, so that I myself would love his future love for another! But I truly did not think that I would have to bear it so soon!" Thus, begins the famous Final Trio of the opera (with Octavian and Sophie), the greatest vocal ensemble that Strauss ever wrote and the reason that Der Rosenkavalker is Strauss' most popular opera. (He himself preferred Frau ohne Schatten.)
Yet, as popular as it was, Hofmannsthal realized it was more because of Strauss' suggestions for arias, duets, and trios that it so delighted the audience. The poet knew that he would have to learn how to create such numbers himself, which he did with his Ariadne auf Naxos, a strange admixture of serious and comic opera, from A (Ariadne) to Z (Zerbinetta), from tragic heroine to buffa coloratura. This opera, as head-scratching as it may seem at first, continues to delight opera audiences world-wide because of the very numbers that Hofmannsthal was determined to work into the plot: lament, coloratura aria, quintet, dance, and finally a grand duet spoofing the extended duo of Tristan und Isolde.
The original plan was that Ariadne was an experiment, a preparation a grand opera called Die Frau ohne Schatten, the most extravagant work they had ever written. Beneath all the heavy symbolism and the musical complexities is the poignant story of a woman who finds her humanity (her shadow, symbolizing fertility) learning that one cannot take it from another for personal gain. It is the story of two marriages that are in trouble and how these difficulties are resolved. It is my favorite Strauss opera, and I savor the richness and variety in the work: dazzling symphonic interludes, instrumental and vocal solos, ensembles, and choruses, as well as the juxtapositions of the phantasmagorical and the utterly human.
Strauss certainly had a rough marriage at times, and he wrote about it in his next opera, Intermezzo (1924), a domestic comedy based on his wife's incorrect suspicion that he was having an affair. It is a very chatty work wherein the lyricism is poured into the delightful symphonic interludes. (If you wish to avoid the delightful, often hilarious chat, buy the suite of interludes.)
Marriage takes another top spot in the next opera, now viewed through the lens of mythology, more specifically through the story of Helen of Troy and her troubled marriage with Menelaus, who, in this version of the tale, wants to kill her for her transgression with Paris. A magician named Aithra drugs him into forgetting, and husband and wife now live in bliss. But, like the woman without a shadow, without his memory he also loses his humanity, and, also like the Empress, she knows she cannot allow his humanity to remain taken, so she has his memory restored. He suddenly picks up his knife. Will he use it or drop it?
This work is a real singers' opera, originally intended for Maria Jeritza in the title role. Leontyne Price brought fame to this work with the aria "Zweite Brautnacht" where bel canto is taken to Wagnerian proportions. All this while, Strauss had been enjoying his relationship with Hofmannsthal, who tragically died (1929) in the midst of Strauss's next opera, Arabella (1933), a return to Vienna, not of the 1740s but the 1870s.
Hofmannsthal never got over Austria's loss in WWI and the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He tried to reclaim the East with a Croatian baron (Mandyka) who falls in love with the Western Arabella, and they sing a beautiful love duet in Act II based on a Croatian folk song. The opera also features (in Act I) one of the loveliest soprano duets that Strauss ever conceived. It was lavishly revived by the Met in 1983 with Kathleen Battle and Kiri Te Kanawa in the two roles.
Strauss moved to another Austrian writer, Stefan Zweig, for his next opera, a kind of replay of Don Pasquale called The Silent Woman, Strauss's sole example of opera buffa. The poor lead bass-baritone suffers from tinnitus and only wants a quiet wife. In a trick wedding his nephew sets him up with a loud shrew, but it's all a joke, and the uncle laughs at himself, singing "How beautiful is music, but even more beautiful when it is over." Only Strauss could have written such a beautiful aria against music itself.
But after Hitler assumed power, Zweig, a Jew, had to emigrate, and he suggested a new librettist – Joseph Gregor – and a new opera plot about the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the horrific 30 Years War. The choral writing of Friedenstag (Day of Peace) is the most extensive of any opera by Strauss; it is really a one-act scenic cantata originally paired with another one-act opera, Daphne, which was made famous to American audiences by Beverly Sills, who sang the most famous transformation scene, when she is magnificently becomes a laurel tree. With its phantasmagorical orchestral palette, soaring melodies, and kaleidoscopic changes of harmonic color, Daphne's transformation is the most magical finale in all of Strauss's late operas.
His next opera was another mythology, but in three acts, Die Liebe der Danae, a work that nostalgically looks back to Wagner and picks up on the theme of gold and its ability to corrupt. Danae must choose between gold and wealth or love and poverty, and, of course, she chooses the latter. Once again, in a Strauss opera, a woman is asked to make a life-altering choice as did Ariadne, the Empress, and Helen. Not surprisingly, this text was based on an earlier sketch by Hofmannsthal.
Strauss' final work, Capriccio, addresses a fundamental question in opera: which is more important – words or music? Olivier has written a sonnet, which has been set to music by Flamand who both court the Countess. Whom shall she choose? She sings the sonnet, reflects in her mirror and cannot decide. Though those of us who have heard Schwarzkopf, Te Kanawa, or even Renée Fleming sing the sonnet know the answer: music. It transports us beyond anything that words can express. And thus Strauss, Richard III, ended his career the way Wagner ended his massive Ring Cycle: in D-flat.
There follow Strauss' operas, in order of composition. IMSLP lists nearly all of his works by catalog number (TrV, for [Franz] Trenner Verzechnis), here: https://imslp.org/wiki/Category:Strauss,_Richard; texts (but not translations) are shown within the main bodies of the scores.
Enjoy! And savor, too!
Op. 25 Guntram (revised 1940) 3 acts Libretto by the composer 1892-93 10 May 1894 Weimar, Grossherzogliches Hoftheater; revised version 29 October 1940 Same location as premiere. Part 1 57:30 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fpsFTYPu28; & Part 2 47:54 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmIUoxX3TOA (conducted by Gustav Kuhn)
Op. 50 Feuersnot Singgedicht 1 act Ernst von Wolzogen 1900-01 21 Nov 1901 Dresden, Königliches Opernhaus 1:43:41 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bplGSjUWQL0 (concert version conducted by Ulf Schirmer)
Op. 54 Salome Musikdrama 1 act Libretto by the composer, based on Hedwig Lachmann's German translation of the French play Salomé by Oscar Wilde 1903-05 9 Dec 1905 Dresden, Königliches Opernhaus. 2:11:47 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YuOCceqikkI (conducted by Hans-E. Zimmer)
Op. 58 Elektra Tragödie 1 act Hugo von Hofmannsthal, after Sophocles' Electra 1906-08 25 Jan 1909 Dresden, Königliches Opernhaus 1:25:33 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-AyqaGacDA (conducted by Berislav Klobucar)
Op. 59 Der Rosenkavalier Komödie für Musik 3 acts Hugo von Hofmannsthal 1909-10 26 Jan 1911 Dresden, Königliches Opernhaus Part 1 1:15:09 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=omFIvIqDhWo; & Part 2 1:57:19 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQp6FYs42cc (conducted by Carlos Kleiber)
Op. 60 Ariadne auf Naxos; to be played after Le bourgeois gentilhomme by Molière Oper 1 act Hugo von Hofmannsthal 1911-12 25 Oct 1912 Stuttgart, Kleines Haus des Hoftheaters. An audio recording of Der Bürger als Edelmann with the music written for the introduction to the first version of the opera: 1:06:24 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PjfLuc_8G9I (conducted by Erich Leinsdorf)
Op. 60 (II) Ariadne auf Naxos, second version prologue & 1 act Hugo von Hofmannsthal 1915-16 4 Oct 1916 Vienna, Kaiserliches und Königliches Hof-Operntheater 2:10:36 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VugbX5UgrLY (conducted by Karl Böhm)
Op. 65 Die Frau ohne Schatten Oper 3 acts Hugo von Hofmannsthal, after Goethe 1914-17 10 Oct 1919 Vienna, Vienna State Opera 3:14:50 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cVsIuh8-BSY (audio only, conducted by Karl Böhm). But also see 2:00:04 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGBHgQgj9vI&t=1951s (conducted by Berislav Klobucar?)
Op. 72 Intermezzo bürgerliche Komödie mit sinfonischen Zwischenspielen 2 acts Libretto by the composer 1918-23 4 Nov 1924 Dresden, Semperoper 2:24:51 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSenGiFLYJs (conducted by Joseph Keilberth)
Op. 75 Die ägyptische Helena Oper 2 acts Hugo von Hofmannsthal, after Euripides' Helen 1923-27 6 Jun 1928 Dresden, Semperoper; new version 14 Aug 1933, Salzburg, Kleines Festspielhaus 2:10:28 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G890uIze06A&t=3884s (audio only, conducted by Leon Botstein)
Op. 79 Arabella lyrische Komödie 3 acts Hugo von Hofmannsthal, after his story Lucidor, Figuren zu einer ungeschriebenen Komödie (1910) and the comic sketch Der Fiaker als Graf (1925) 1929-32 1 Jul 1933 Dresden, Semperoper 2:39:01 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v4-umEH4OdQ (audio only, conducted by Karl Böhm).
Op. 80 Die schweigsame Frau komische Oper 3 acts Stefan Zweig, after Ben Jonson's Epicœne, or The silent woman 1933-34 24 Jun 1935 Dresden, Semperoper Act I 45:50 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpUPUYDQkIE & Act II 47:10 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGWnMTe2aDA & Act III 35:57 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qAwfkcAddTY (conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch)
Op. 83 Die Liebe der Danae heitere Mythologie 3 acts Joseph Gregor 1938-40 14 Aug 1952 Salzburg, Kleines Festspielhaus 2:41:33 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XeAM9UsMfCU (conducted by Franz Welser-Möst)
Op. 85 Capriccio Konversationsstück für Musik 1 act Clemens Krauss and the composer, after Giovanni Battista Casti 1940-41 28 Oct 1942 Munich, Bayerische Staatsoper, Nationaltheater 2:26:30 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EOFki9ykmBs&t=3s (conducted by Horst Stein)
TrV 294 Des Esels Schatten; score info here (orchestrated and completed by Karl Haussner) Komödie 6 scenes Hans Adler, after Wieland's novel Die Geschichte der Abderiten 1947-49 7 Jun 1964 Ettal Not yet recorded.