Early Strauss Opera “Feursnot,” Gets ‘Concept” Staging

A-OP-FeuersnotEarly Strauss Opera “Feuersnot,”  Gets “Concept” Staging

Richard Strauss’ 1901 “Feuersnot” is described by the composer and librettist as a “Singgedicht,” a poem (more specifically a ballad) to be sung, rather than as an opera. It tells the tale of a sorcerer who extinguishes all the fires in Munich (during the Middle Ages) until the girl he loves yields to him. Since it is St. John’s Night when bonfires are required, she gives in to the populace’s pressure. (The title translates as “Fire-need.”)

ArtHaus Musik has released a DVD of a 2014 production of this interesting work from the Teatro Massimo, Palermo, conducted by Gabriele Ferro and directed by Emma Dante. Dietrich Henschel is the sorcerer Kunrad and Nicola Deller Carbone is the virgin Diemut. The cast of soloists, chorus, children’s chorus, and dancers is enormous; and Dante keeps things moving throughout. The singing of the leads and secondary characters is impressive.

Unhappily, the dancing all too often distracts from what is being sung to what is being danced; and while this is less of a problem for the video viewer, it is a basic mistake for a “live” audience.

Those not used to post-Wagnerian operas should be warned that memorable melodies are not the staple of the genre. There are very powerful moments in this work that look forward to Strauss’ “Salome” and “Elektra,” and “Feuersnot” must be taken on its own musical terms.

As with too many recent productions, the director deliberately uses staging that contradicts what is being sung. When reference is made to pieces of Kunrad’s house being used for a bonfire, we see musical manuscripts. What is called a basket is obviously a chair. The scene is the street in front of a half-closed down tenement building, the time seems to be the middle 1990s. Half of the population consists of a manic circus troupe that cannot be still for a moment, and a few dozen chairs are hanging in the sky.

It is the usual “figure out for yourself what all or any of this means” attitude so many directors take today toward their audiences. But once you get the plot in mind from the program notes (don’t even bother with the “making of” nonsense given as a video bonus), you can enjoy this early work by a composer that would give the world “Die Rosenkavalier” a few decades later.

The running time is 113 minutes and the subtitles are in German, English and Korean.




La Sonnambula

A Vintage Telecast of a Silly but Tuneful OperaA-OP-Sonnambula

 The scenarios to many operas are pretty goofy—mostly those of the Baroque era—but Bellini’s “La Sonnambula” (1831) is most often cited as the goofiest of the Romantic era.

There are two or three DVD releases that are simply not in the bel canto (beautiful singing) tradition. But there is one—on the VAI label–that is in the tradition, and it is much praised in “The Metropolitan Opera Guide to Opera on Video” (New York, 1997). It is taken from a tape of a 1956 telecast and the production does not shrink from the silly moments. There is lots of dancing among the chorus of Swiss villagers, and the whole thing is charmingly done.

Vincenzo Bellini

One must bear in mind that the video and audio from a tape of a 1956 telecast are not going to be of the best. Now and then, the screen is shows dirt spots and there is something of a sonic blur when the chorus sings at top volume. But the performances more than make up for any of these technical defects.

A young Anna Moffo is Amina, engaged to marry Elvino (Danilo Vega), who is loved by the innkeeper Lisa (Gianna Galli). However, Rodolfo, lord of the village (Plinio Clabassi), returns in disguise and takes a room at the inn. He flirts with Lisa and who should enter the room next but Amina, a sleepwalker—which is what “sonnambula” means! I leave the rest to my readers’ imaginations.

This cast knows what it is about, and I was especially impressed by Clabassi, whose voice and physique dominate the screen. Rodolfo is, after all, a Don Giovanni with a conscience; while Elvino is the typical tenor who will always think the worst of the woman he loves.

The Sonnambula sonnambulating in Act III

The program notes include a short commentary on the production, as well as a tracking list. The running time is 122 minutes and there are only English subtitles. A real bargain at the price. And check out other VAI opera-for-television at vaimusic.com.

Note. The second candidate for goofy plotting is Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” much spoofed by W.S. Gilbert in “HMS Pinafore” and “The Gondoliers.” I might add to this list a short opera by Wolf-Ferrari, “The Secret of Susanna” (1906), the big secret being that she smokes.

But by far the silliest—nay, the stupidest—production at the Metropolitan Opera was the one of “La Sonnambula,” which was staged as a rehearsal. This will make you appreciate the VAI disc all the more!