The Kuhn Gallery in Winston-Salem was full for a rare presentation of Richard Strauss’s Enoch Arden (1897) on August 11. Co-Artistic Director Benjamin Wolff, in brief remarks, alluded to the popularity of melodramas, poetry recitations enhanced by piano accompaniment, in the 19th century. The American Heritage Dictionary (Second College Edition) defines melodrama as “a dramatic presentation characterized by heavy use of suspense, sensational episodes, romantic sentiment, and a conventionally happy ending.” Strauss’s setting of the poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson certainly meets all those criteria except perhaps the last, in that its end would not be perceived as “happy” by the “Me Generation.” Wolff said that one of the goals of the Foothills Chamber Music Festival is to “broaden the tent” covering what we call chamber music. This one lies pretty close to the tent pegs. He said he found the genre more exciting than MTV or the Internet.

Enoch Arden was immensely successful when it was first performed, and it helped consolidate Strauss’s reputation. It is a pièce d’occasion intended as a thank you for the Munich Intendant Ernst von Possart, who had been influential in securing the composer’s appointment as Principal Conductor of the Munich Court Opera. Ever the astute businessman, Strauss realized that Enoch Arden would provide a star vehicle for Possart, who had been an eminent actor before becoming an administrator. The two toured with it extensively, performing to large and appreciative audiences. Two years later, Strauss composed another melodrama, Das Schloss am Meer ( The Castle by the Sea ), for Possart.

Strauss intended Enoch Arden for a single speaker and pianist, but at Foothills the text was divided between male and female narrators. Julia Matthews is Chair of the Theatre Department at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. She is also a soprano who specializes in early music. Alas, there were no biographical notes about James N. Brown in the Foothills program book; Google reveals that he currently teaches at Kutztown University and has been on the staff of the New York Shakespeare Festival. Both shared in (and responded to) portrayals of dramatic and vivid descriptions, and the division between male and female speakers may have heightened the audience’s involvement. Both had exemplary diction and both fully projected a wide variety of emotions. There were very few slips of the tongue.

The able pianist was Foothills co-founder and co-director Rachel Matthews, who has an impressive résumé and is active in the Seattle area. Rachel and Julia are daughters of NCSA pianist Clifton Matthews.

The piano is used intermittently in Enoch Arden. The best passages occur in the opening, setting the scene and describing the three children (Annie, who is loved by Philip, who is the mill owner’s son, and Enoch, the fisherman’s son). More than once I was reminded of the descriptive music of some passages in “Till Eulenspiegel.” The text recounts Annie’s marriage to Enoch and Philip’s long-suppressed love for Annie. Enoch tries to improve his fortune by embarking on a trading expedition, is shipwrecked on a desert island, and returns home after more than a decade to find his wife remarried to Philip. Rejecting upsetting her happiness (and that of her children), he dies hidden away in his homeport, his presence there revealed only posthumously. There cannot be another hour-long work filled with such high-minded selflessness!

According to Robert Anderson, in “Return Journey,” a review of an Americus Records CD of Enoch Arden with actor Michael York and pianist John Bell, a diary entry by Strauss for late February 1897 says “Finished Enoch Arden (melodrama) for Possart. Remark expressly that I do not wish it ever to be counted among my works, as it is a worthless occasional piece (in the worst sense of the word).” Anderson also quotes from Ernest Newman’s book on Strauss: “The union of the speaking voice with the pianoforte is at best a detestable one.” James Pritchett, in “Richard Strauss: Melodramas,” recounts the work’s dismissal by many critics. In surveys of the composer’s music “one encounters such descriptions as ‘musically insignificant,’ or ‘slight’ while Norman Del Mar suggests… that the genre… itself… is ‘problematic’ and ‘unrewarding.'” During the Foothills performance, I was sometimes reminded of listening to radio melodramas during the early 1950s. Pritchett suggests that “there is much to be gained by listening to Strauss’s score… as a soundtrack without a film.” In the end, while grateful for the chance to experiencing a performance of Enoch Arden , I cannot imagine ever wanting to repeat the experience.