Dresden Pulls Out All the Stops to Honour Richard Strauss’ Anniversary

Richard Strauss 150th Birthday Concert:Anja Harteros (soprano), Camilla Nylund (soprano),  Christine Goerke (soprano), Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann, (conductor),Semperoper, Dresden, 11.6.2014.(MC)

Richard Strauss:   Erste Walzerfolge aus der Komödie für MusikDer Rosenkavalier’, op. 59 (1911)
Auftrittsmonolog der Elektra ‘Allein! Weh, ganz allein’ aus der Tragödie ‘Elektra’, op. 58 (1909)
Liebesszene (Orchesterschluss) aus dem Singgedicht ‘Feuersnot’, op. 50 (1901)
Schlussgesang der Salome ‘Ah! Du wolltest mich nicht deinen Mund küssen lassen, Jochanaan’ aus dem Musikdrama ‘Salome’, op. 54 (1905)
Zweite Walzerfolge aus ‘Der Rosenkavalier’, op. 59 (1911)
Szene der Arabella ‘Mein Elemer!’ vom Schluss des Ersten Aufzugs der Lyrischen Komödie ‘Arabella’, op. 79 (1933)
Zweites sinfonisches Zwischenspiel ‘Träumerei am Kamin’ aus der Bürgerlichen Komödie ‘Intermezzo’, op. 72 (1924)
Arie der Helena ‘Zweite Brautnacht!’ vom Beginn des Zweiten Aufzugs der Oper ‘Die ägyptische Helena’, op. 75 (1928)
Vorspiel (‘Potpourri’) der Komischen Oper ‘Die schweigsame Frau’, op. 80 (1935)
Schlussszene mit Daphnes Verwandlung, ‘Ich komme – ich komme – grünende Brüder’ aus der Bukolischen Tragödie ‘Daphne’, op. 82 (1938)

Christian Thielemann, photo Matthias Creutziger
Christian Thielemann, photo Matthias Creutziger

Just three days after the Staatskapelle Dresden under Christian Thielemann performed ‘Eine Alpensinfonie’ with Anja Harteros singing the ‘Vier letzte Lieder’ and ‘Malven’ the performers were back in the Semperoper for another all-Richard Strauss concert on the actual date of the composer’s 150th birthday. I thought it would be hard to equal the drama of that concert but with the addition of the substantial voices of sopranos Camilla Nylund and Christine Goerke they actually increased the drama, doing full justice to vocal and orchestral excerpts from Strauss’s nine operas all premiered in Dresden. Curiously for a concert of this type there was no interval which in a way helped the consistency of the atmosphere in the house.

Opening the concert was the first of the waltzes from ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ and immediately noticeable was the unerring unity of the Staatskapelle strings with concertmaster Matthias Wollong’s solo beautifully rendered. It was clear that Thielemann and his Dresden players were at home with this glorious music providing buoyancy and a meltingly attractive Viennese lilt.

Originally Nina Stemme was to perform but had to withdraw leaving the opportunity for Christine Goerke to show her worth. This was my first look at Goerke, the Grammy Award winning American dramatic soprano, who was first of the three sopranos on the stage singing Elektra’s great monologue ‘Allein! Weh, ganz allein’ from ‘Elektra’. I can still picture Goerke gowned in black lace over red marching purposefully onto the stage and she had no trouble at all projecting her remarkably powerful voice over the large orchestra. With an unobtrusive vibrato, excellent diction and a blazing intensity she places such brazen emotion and drama behind her notes and has the ability to appear to be singing to each audience member.

The orchestral music to the Love Scene from the opera ‘Feuersnot’, such passionate music with a nocturnal feel and a touch of sadness, easily depicts the pain of lovers parting. Thielemann quickly intensified the passion and the music became dramatic almost festive with the prominent brass and percussion.

Next Goerke performed Salome’s scandalous and unsettling soliloquy-aria to Jochanaan’s severed head ‘Ah! Du wolltest mich nicht deinen Mund küssen lassen, Jochanaan’ with tremendous confidence. Quite the actress she soon got into character by giving the audience a glaring sideways look and the evil-eye. There was an abundance of emotion to Goerke’s voice that held up strongly, consistently and convincingly. It was all very intoxicating and how the audience loved it.

Thielemann produced such a wonderful second waltz sequence from ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ that felt so light on its feet with pronounced contributions from the strings and woodwind.

Camilla Nylund, Anja Harteros, Christian Thielemann & Christine Goerke © Matthias Creutziger
Camilla Nylund, Anja Harteros, Christian Thielemann & Christine Goerke © Matthias Creutziger

I had seen Anja Harteros just three days earlier in the Semperoper performing Strauss under Thielemann’s baton. Here Harteros sang ‘Mein Elemer!’ from the end of Act 1 of ‘Arabella’. Arguably the finest soprano of her type around today Harteros, looking slim and striking in a fuchsia gown and wearing her hair up, enchanted the audience with a stunning performance and beauty of tone. Her poised and focused approach is straightforward with nothing exaggerated and engaging with the audience she really seemed be living the role. With such excellent diction and smooth projection I love the way she can darken her voice so easily. Able to project easily over Strauss’s luxuriant orchestral writing, what drama Harteros and the Staatskapelle generated in the house.

The second symphonic interlude from ‘Intermezzo’ was noticeable for its haunting melody on high strings and horns together with some lovely woodwind themes. Once again the music increased in intensity becoming remarkably passionate.

During a recent interview I had with theatre director Brigitte Fassbaender she mentioned enjoying working with the talented soprano Camilla Nylund. So from not having previously heard Nylund I saw her perform twice at the Semperoper in three days; first as a soloist in Beethoven’s ‘Missa Solemnis’ and then singing Helen’s aria ‘Zweite Brautnacht!’ from act 2 of ‘Die ägyptische Helena’. Wearing a rose coloured evening dress Nylung strode onto the stage and became unsettled for a time as an earring was loose and soon fell off. Nylund has a large weighty voice which requires considerable control and although much of the aria is set in a high tessitura she rose to the considerable challenges singing with real passion and keeping her vibrato as inconspicuous as possible. The knowledgeable audience responded with real affection to Nyland’s personality and conscientious endeavours.

Thielemann’s final orchestral work the Prelude (‘Potpourri’) from ‘Die schweigsame Frau’ opened with some extremely tricky string work. In this decidedly challenging music the maestro kept things wonderfully together with palpable assurance.

For the last aria of the evening Daphne’s transformation scene ‘Ich komme – ich komme – grünende Brüder’ from ‘Daphne’ Nylund had changed into a stunning aquamarine gown. No wardrobe malfunctions this time as the soprano conveyed large and scalding hot waves of dramatic sound through the house.

I must have attended a dozen or so Richard Strauss concerts this year experiencing vocalists not strong enough to be heard over the orchestra. No such problems at the Semperoper as my prayers were answered with the superbly chosen trio of sopranos who had all the necessary vocal heft in spades. All three sopranos were in remarkable form and gave their all which the packed audience responded to with relish. With the music of Richard Strauss running through its veins like lifeblood I doubt there is a finer interpreter of this repertoire than the Staatskapelle Dresden under Christian Thielemann. On the evidence of this elevated level of performance it is easy to see why the Staatskapelle became known as the ‘Strauss orchestra’.The encore Maestro Thielemann gave was a repeat of the second waltz sequence from ‘Der Rosenkavalier’. All the great excitement happening inside the packed Semperoper was shared by a large number of people outside watching a live transmission on a big screen. Upon leaving the Semperoper I was able to see and hear the three sopranos, who had moved outside into Theaterplatz, being interviewed on the stage of the big screen transmission. After a few words each into the presenter’s microphone I had to smile as they left together for the opera house in their haute couture gowns each tottering over the cobbles in their high heels.

This was one of the most rewarding concerts I have ever experienced and any subsequent DVD/Blu-ray is a must buy.

Michael Cookson