It is a bust of Mozart that occupies center place in the lobby of the Bavarian State Opera today, looked down on by the two Richards, Wagner and Strauss.
Yet both as composer and performer the last came in for more than his share of harsh treatment in his native city. Not only was his first opera, the semi-mystical "Guntram," greeted with derision there in 1895 but he himself had departed the Bavarian capital six years earlier after an angst-ridden tenure as subconductor of the Court Opera. No wonder Strauss' next opera, "Feuersnot," held Munich itself up to ridicule, in a quasi-Wagnerian fable that shows the artist triumphant.Whether that triumph was fully sustained over the years is still a controversial question. But Munich has certainly made amends for its early hostility, and never more resoundingly than this summer with Munich Opera Festival presentations of every one of the composer's 15 operas, with the ballet "The Legend of Joseph" thrown in for good measure.
Some would argue that that is too much of a good, or possibly bad, thing. Even before I arrived I was hearing snickers over the supposed poverty of invention in such later works as "Die Liebe der Danae," which opened the festival on July 4, and "Die schweigsame Frau" (which, as it happens, many ended up liking). Even the Staatsoper opted to do its duty by "Guntram" and "Friedenstag" by way of concert performances, as opposed to the fully staged productions accorded the rest.
Happily that was not the case with "Feuersnot," whose self-conscious libretto (by Ernst von Wolzogen) needs the kind of comic impetus clever and enthusiastic staging can provide. (Together with "Friedenstag," it is also being mounted this summer at Santa Fe - thanks to the unflagging devotion of John Crosby, perhaps the second major Strauss-opera bastion in the world.) And, again happily, that is what it got, in a production whose lack of vocal riches was more than made up for by spirited direction onstage (by Giancarlo del Monaco, son of the Italian tenor) and in the pit (by Gustav Kuhn).
Set in a 12th-century Munich remarkably reminiscent of Wagner's Nuremberg, the opera is essentially a romantic comedy, with pronounced sexual overtones, unevenly larded with satire and high artistic pronouncements. The music, however, is delightful, falling somewhere between the playfulness of "Till Eulenspiegel" and the fragrance of "Der Rosenkavalier," without effacing memories of either. But the love music is compelling enough to have earned it a place on concert programs from time to time.
As Kunrad, the Strauss-like interloper who is goaded into magically extinguishing the city's fires until they can be rekindled by a woman's love, Walter Raffeiner proved something of heavyweight vocally and physically. But as the evening progressed he made the role his own, finding unexpected humor in this not-overly-bright hero. (I will not soon forget the sight of him nervously slicking down his hair as he prepares to ride the rope basket up to his beloved's bedroom window.)
For her part Sabine Hass looked and sounded a bit long in the tooth for the romantically impressionable Diemut. Otherwise one welcomed the presence of a number of Munich opera veterans in the cast, not least famed Wagnerian Heldentenor Hans Hopf, here, in a character role, celebrating the 50th anniversary of his debut. Clearly this is an opera this city has taken to its heart, despite its initially having been the object of the joke.
Ditto Welsh soprano Gwyneth Jones, who brought down the house July 20 as "Die Aegyptische Helena" ("The Egyptian Helen"). (Reportedly she had done the same two weeks before, subbing for an indisposed Lucia Popp in "Der Rosenkavalier.") It is a powerful voice, and an experienced stage presence she provides. But so pronounced was her screaming as the evening wore on that I found parts of Act 2 actually painful. And although East Germany's Klaus Koenig made for a hardy Menelaus, his beefy-voiced tenor displayed little ring or glow.
No, for my money the hero on this occasion was conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch, who above all imparted strength to what tends to be, if anything, an overly luxuriant score. Certainly Act 2 emerged in better shape than I can recall having heard before, and that despite the stumble-footed super who dropped his end of the bier during Da-ud's funeral procession.
Apart from that, this act also took top honors in terms of staging, even without taking into account the Act 1 depiction of the Omniscient Mussel (surely one of the strangest characters in opera) as a sort of antique radio receiver, surmounted by a cheap-looking antenna.
I still think there is very little in "Helen" that one cannot find even more compellingly represented elsewhere in the Straussian canon (partly the fault of Hofmannsthal's murkily sodden libretto). But clearly the sheer beauty of the writing, especially for the title character, continues to win it admirers. And I applaud stage director Helmut Lehberger's decision to follow the silhouetted shipwreck of the first act with the splendidly solid bark that bears Helen and Menelaus home at the end, as though the shadowy illusion of the beginning had somehow become the shining reality of the end.
Again, some would maintain that just the opposite happened to Strauss, at least between the theatrical brilliance of "Salome" and "Elektra" and the early tone poems, and the mythologial meanderings of "Helen," "Daphne" and "Die Liebe der Danae." But that does not allow for that golden twilight that gave us, besides "Capriccio," "Metamorphosen" and the Four Last Songs, or the occasional flashes of silver that followed "Der Rosenkavalier."
In short, he is one composer on whom the book has yet to be closed. And it is heartening to realize that the re-examination is still taking place in the very town in which it was first opened.