Friedenstag (Richard Strauss)

FRIEDENSTAG

Oper in 1 act

Op. 81, TrV 271

By Richard Strauss

Librettist: Joseph Gregor, after Stefan Zweig

First performed: Nationaltheater, Munich, 24 July 1838

Dossier.


COMMENTARY

The rarely performed, often maligned Friedenstag is one of Strauss’s most underrated works: a powerful testament to the horrors of war and a plea for peace, first performed in Nazi Germany.

The opera takes place on 22 October 1684, the last day of the Thirty Years’ War, the deadliest European religious war in history, pitting Catholics against Protestants.  A Catholic town is besieged by the Protestant Holsteiner army.  The Kommandant of the citadel has sworn never to surrender the town, and intends to blow up the citadel rather than let it fall into enemy hands.  The Holstein army advances – but it turns out that they are not attacking.  The armistice has been signed, and the decades-long war is over.

The powerful one-act work has some of Strauss’s most impressive choral and orchestral writing: the starving townsfolk demanding bread; the bells sounding for the first time in years, announcing peace; and the radiant C-major finale, Fidelio for a post-Mahlerian age.

Why, then, is Friedenstag so little known?  One problem may be that it doesn’t what do Strauss’s operas are supposed to do.  Most of his operas are either elegant, witty and wry, or hothouse shockers, as decadent and luxuriant as a Rafflesia.  This serious, rather earnest, treatment of war is a far cry from the Rococo Vienna of Der Rosenkavalier and the metafictional Ariadne auf Naxos, or the nightmarish Salome and Elektra.

Some critics have also accused Strauss of trying to curry favour with the Nazis with this opera.  It was the first major opera composed under National Socialism, and they point to the fact that the appeal to peace as a call to arms, the notion of a unified Germany, and the mythologizing of the Thirty Years’ War were all part of Hitlerian propaganda.  This interpretation is unlikely.

Strauss (who detested the Nazis [see below]) and his librettists – the writer Stefan Zweig, a Jewish pacifist and internationalist, and, after Zweig fled to London, his replacement Joseph Gregor – considered the opera “a hymn to the reconciliation of nations” and “a work extolling the union of peoples” – a stance at odds with the Nazis, who banned the work from stage performance after 1939.

It shows the miseries of war, which, to the ordinary people, is “murder and hatred”.  Their children die, and their grandchildren whine for bread.  The townsfolk starve, and are forced to eat rats to survive.  Churches are blown up, and houses burnt.  War breeds suspicion and fear – but the enemy are suffering fellow human beings.  “I have seen the foe,” says the town mayor; “they are men like us.  They suffer distress in their trenches, just like us.  When they are kicked, they groan like us – and when they pray, they pray to the same God!”

War is dehumanizing.  “Was ist das: Friede?” asks a musketeer.  The soldiers don’t know; they’ve been fighting since they were children.  They have lost any compassion for the people they are meant to protect.  Even when they see a farm set on fire, they only wonder what it means about the enemy’s movements – “nothing”.  They don’t care about the peasant whose home and crops have been destroyed.

The Kommandant is a man of war.  “I know nothing of peace!  …  The Emperor’s will ordered me to persevere, and achieve victory!”  He would rather blow himself and his soldiers up than surrender – but he obeys orders.  He is almost deaf to the appeal of love or compassion.  “War, glorious idea, war, wherever your mighty head rises, then all low impulses/emotions bow down before obedience, and life itself becomes the prize of men’s honour.”

The heart of the opera is the Kommandant’s wife Maria.  She obviously appealed to Strauss’s sympathy, and he wrote one of his typically lyrical soprano arias for her.

She is the only named character in the opera – but, like the Madonna, whose name she bears, she is a spiritual intercessor.  She is the comforter of war’s sufferers and the poor people; and she intervenes when the commanders of the two armies are about to come to blows, launching the opera’s finale.

That choral finale is glorious.

All the people – Maria, the two commanders, their armies, the townspeople, the church – come together in one surging sea of humanity and sing an exultant hymn to peace, as the citadel tower sinks into the stage and sunlight floods the theatre.


STRAUSS AND THE NAZIS

No, Strauss wasn’t a Nazi, or a Nazi sympathizer.  This old accusation still gets trotted out.

Yes, Strauss accepted the post of president of the Reichsmusikkammer, partly because he thought he could secure better copyright arrangements for composers, and he wanted to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren.  He soon fell out of favor, and was ordered to resign when the Nazis intercepted a letter to Zweig criticizing the regime.

Zweig wrote the libretto for Strauss’s comic opera Die schweigsame Frau.  The Nazis pulled the opera after three performances, when Strauss, to his credit, refused to remove the Jewish Zweig’s name from the programme.

Strauss later wrote, in a secret memorandum:

“I consider the Streicher-Goebbels Jew-baiting as a disgrace to German honour, as evidence of incompetence, the basest weapon of untalented, lazy mediocrity against a higher intelligence and greater talent.”


RECORDINGS

Friedenstag Sawallisch.jpgListen to: Wolfgang Sawallisch, 1988, with Bernd Weikl, Sabine Hass, Jaako Ryhänen, and Jan-Hendrik Rootering.  EMI.  A fine cast, clear orchestration, and apparently more complete than Giuseppe Sinopoli’s 1999 Deutsche Grammophon recording.

Fans of archival recordings may want to check out the 1939 Vienna recording, starring the original Kommandant (Hans Hotter) and Maria ( Viorica Ursuleac).

 

Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor – Otto Nicolai

DIE LUSTIGEN WEIBER VON WINDSOR

Komisch phantastische Oper in 3 Akten

By Otto Nicolai

Libretto: Salomon Hermann Mosenthal

First performed: Königliches Opernhaus, Berlin, 9 March 1848

For more information about the opera, see the dossier.

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STORY

The opera is based on Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor.  Frauen Fluth (Mrs Ford) and Reich outwit Sir John Falstaff, who sent them love letters in a plot to wheedle money out of them.  They trick Falstaff into hiding in a laundry basket, then throw him into the Thames.  They trick him into disguising himself as an old woman, and Herr Fluth beats him.  Their plots are complicated by Fluth’s jealousy and the Reichs’ daughter Anna and her three suitors.  At the end, the townsfolk of Windsor all trick Falstaff, disguised as Herne the Hunter, and pinch him until he repents.  Then, all friends again, they go off and have dinner.


COMMENTARY

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The Merry Wives of Windsor, a commission for Elizabeth I, who wanted to see Sir John in love, is generally regarded as one of Shakespeare’s weakest plays, but it’s proved irresistible to opera composers.  Salieri, Verdi, Balfe and Vaughan Williams all adapted it.  It has a jolly fat man (ideal for a buffo bass), two clever women who run rings around everybody else, a jealous husband, a couple of young lovers, disguises, cross purposes, and a happy ending.  There’s plenty of action, even if not always of an elevated kind (a fat man in drag being cudgeled), while the scene with the fairies at Herne’s Oak by moonlight gives any musician worth his salt an excuse for Romantic scene setting.  And it can also be very funny.  (The malapropisms, double entendres about Latin grammar, and French and Welsh mangling of English were probably funnier for Elizabethan audiences, but it also shows that the Bard was no highbrow.  What other Shakespeare comedy has so many jokes about bodily fluids and functions?  With a tribute to Good Queen Bess as queen of the fairies thrown in.)

Otto Nicolai’s version is a delight.  His opera is best known for its exhilarating overture, once a standard of the concert hall, but his version – a German Singspiel, a mixture of spoken text and opera singing – has plenty to offer.  Nicolai’s treatment of the busy, bustling plot is high-spirited and tuneful.  The farcical action provides plenty of opportunity for ensembles and duets, while the young lovers’ subplot provides the lyrical, sentimental interest – the heart to the comedy.

Nicolai had an obvious talent for extended musical set pieces.  The Act I finale (the laundry basket scene) runs to 18 minutes and 6 scenes; it begins with a duet, turns into a trio, and brings a large cast offstage and then back on again for an impressive ensemble.  Mozart would approve.

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A later number (#7) comprises a scene, a gracious romance, a lovers’ duettino, and a quartettino as the two other suitors watch jealously from behind bushes.  Frau Fluth (the lead of the merry wives) has a vivacious aria, a brilliant piece that shows off the singer’s voice, with elaborate Italianate runs, while Frau Reich’s ballad about Herne the Hunter is a darkly Romantic piece, moodily accompanied by the horns.

There are moments of pure beauty, too.  The Mondchor (Moon Chorus) “O susser Mond!” that launches the final scene is breathtakingly lovely.  As the moon slowly rises, the violincellos and basses play a phrase, the horns and bassoons join them, with a regular drumbeat holding the music together.  A clock strikes midnight in the distance.  Nicolai knew the worth of this music; he used it to open the overture.  The forest scene is enchanting; it’s in the line of German Romantic opera with its heroine dressed as Titania and two men disguised as Herne the Hunter.  It ends in a really brilliant ensemble as the “spirits” pinch Falstaff.

This was Nicolai’s last opera; he died of a stroke two months after the opera’s premiere.


PERFORMANCES

Norman Foster’s film, directed by Georg Tressler, and written “with the reluctant assistance of Shakespeare”.  It is heavily cut, and sung in (often Teutonic or Slavic-accented) English, but it’s an agreeable comedy, full of energy and colour, and often attractive to watch.  There are nods to Breughel and other Flemish masters; the ballerina Rosella Hightower dances the overture; and the forest scene is imaginatively staged; the villagers’ makeshift costumes for the spirits look like giant walking pumpkins, bird-headed men, or strange buckets, like a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life.  Foster makes a ferociously genial Falstaff, while Colette Boky is a delight as Mrs Ford: sensuous with a smile, and gleefully running rings around both the knight and her husband.  She’s very fetching as she sings her aria while having a bath.  “The Merry Wives of Windsor are amply endowed” indeed!

Recommended recordings:

Klee Weiber Windsor.jpgBernhard Klee, 1976, with Edith Mathis, Hanna Schwarz, Kurt Moll, Bernd Weikl, Siegfried Vogel, Peter Schreier, and Claude Dormoy, with the Staatsoper Chorus and the Berlin Staatskapelle (Deutsche Grammophon)

Rafael Kubelik, 1978, with Helen DKubelik Windsor.jpgonath, Karl Riddersbusch, Wolfgang Brendel, and Lilian Sukis, with the Bavarian Radio Chorus and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Decca).


HIGHLIGHTS