Photo by Robert Millard
Of the two composers named Strauss — unrelated, so far as anyone knows — who commanded the attention at downtown emporia in recent weeks, it was Richard who generated the louder noise and Johann Jr. who made the prettier music. Some of my colleagues seemed put out to discover something so trivial (their word, not mine) as one of Johann’s waltzes in the sacred precincts of a Philharmonic subscription concert. Others had the wisdom to apply adjectives like “silly” to the four-hour endurance challenge of Richard’s Die Frau ohne Schatten at Mrs. Chandler’s newly anointed opera house. I’m only happy that Mrs. Chandler wasn’t around for this ordeal — happy, and perhaps a little envious.
Guest conductor Franz Welser-Möst, Austrian by birth (not quite Vienna, but Linz — of the Linzer Torte — which is close enough), drew on a fine old Viennese tradition, honored by the likes of Furtwängler and Walter, by ending his Philharmonic program with Johann Jr. in three-four: Künstler-Leben, to be specific, with all the intros and repeats to bring the work out to respectable length. You could, if you wished, stir in your seat and grumble at the sacrilege of introducing such fluff into precincts where Beethoven has so recently reigned. You could also, if you preferred, tune in on this quite superb performance, drink in the elegance of the unique orchestration — first violins doubled by piccolo in the first theme, for one delight of many — and marvel at how this splendid young conductor managed to put across the peculiarity of the Viennese rubato, with that subtle holding-back on the second beat, in only a couple of days’ rehearsal.
I have not always been that taken with Welser-Möst’s conducting, and I found some of last week’s Philharmonic program — above all, the Schubert “Unfinished” and the collaboration with Radu Lupu on Mozart’s A-major Piano Concerto (K. 488) — a shade lacking in grace. His programming at his new post with the Cleveland Orchestra has been full of adventure and new music; I wonder why he came here with so old-fashioned a bill. Lupu’s performance of the Mozart, with its divinely melancholic slow movement, seemed offhand, as much audibly slouching as he actually appeared onstage. Alban Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra of 1913-14 instilled a little more life: great, thudding echoes of a young man’s agonies as a world closes down around him (and, thus, an interesting mirror of the awful Richard Strauss biz from the same years going on just up the street).
Yet the waltz of Artists’ Life was the evening’s real event. It sent me scurrying back to my own collection — most of all to my videos of two New Year’s concerts at Vienna’s Musikverein conducted by Carlos Kleiber, and to an even older CD by his father, Erich. These performances are more than musical experiences; they are lessons in a subtle and (I would have thought) untranslatable language, beyond explanation by any system of supertitles yet invented. Yet the young Welser-Möst had our Philharmonic speaking it — no, singing it — remarkably well.
Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten bears some kind of contemporary relevance, I suppose; it accomplishes the feat of delivering messages of comfort and joy both to readers of Betty Friedan and to bombers of abortion clinics. It delivers the same message — married life is better with babies — in four hours that Mozart’s Papageno and Papagena deliver in four minutes. Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s overwrought outrage of a fairy tale accorded with literary tastes circa 1912; Richard Strauss, post-Elektra/Salome, easily commanded its musical equivalent. Today it serves the needs of painters with full pots of garish colors at their disposal, and designers with vast arrays of stage machinery to play with. Its most famous American production was as the showoff piece for the scenery-changing gadgetry at the new Metropolitan Opera House in 1966. Its one positive attribute at that time was the heavy cutting imposed on the score by its conductor, Karl Böhm, which the Los Angeles Opera preserved in the John Cox production first seen here in 1993 and now, restaged by Patrick Young, in its return. It runs through March 13.
By some distance, the current revival is the best production of the work I’ve seen or could imagine seeing, better by far than the Metropolitan Opera’s tinfoil spectacular (now replaced) or the austere video version from Salzburg (conducted by Georg Solti at such breakneck tempos that, uncut, it runs almost the same time as the cut version seen here). In 1993, Randall Behr was the hapless conductor of a cast of comparable mediocrity, so that my memories of the David Hockney stage designs survived mostly in black and white. Now, finally, I have them in full color — great globs of color, a huge 3-D impasto of exquisite bad taste exactly in tune with the music — thanks to the musical outlines of the performance itself. Kent Nagano’s surging, billowing orchestra lays siege to the senses with what may be the world’s first audible legal narcotic.
The cast — one and all — proves as worthily chosen as the 1993 aggregation was unworthy. Inga Nielsen is the Empress, smaller and brighter of voice than the usual Wagnerian soprano (Leonie Rysanek in the Böhm recording), and by that measure more sympathetic; Linda Watson as the shrewish Dyer’s Wife is, by the same token, further down the scale of humanness and thus more overpowering. Best of all is Wolfgang Brendel as Barak the Dyer, a truly memorable portrait. Never have I been tempted to urge upon my reading public so horrendous a musical baggage purely on the strength of performance values . . . well, hardly ever.