Monday, March 02, 2015

"Guntram", obscure opera by Richard Strauss, and a relevant morality play, is presented by Washington Concert Opera

On Sunday, March 1, 2015, I attended a performance by Washington Concert Opera at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium of “Guntram” by Richard Strauss.
Getting there was a challenge, given the ice storm that created a glaze almost unprecedented i Foggy Bottom.  I actually am a graduate of The George Washington University (1966).  There was a pre-concert lecture at 5 PM which I understand almost everyone missed, including me.
The performance was conducted by Anthony Walker.  Soloists included Robert Dean Smith as Guntram, Marjorie Owens as Freihild, Wei Wu as Friedhold, Zachary Nelson as Duke Robert, and Tomm Fox as The Old Duke,  There was a small chorus in Acts I and II.
The opera was originally composed around 1892 and revised in 1940.  Strauss wrote the libretto himself, at around age 28.   The music is quoted in the tone poem “Ein Heldenleben”. The concept is that of a ubiquitous morality play. 
Strauss had become interested in fraternal societies (did he belong to the Rosicrucian Order?  Debussy did).  The plot concerns a fictitious order called “Champions of Love”. One of the concepts is non-violence, like that of the American Civil Rights movement.  Hero Guntram is a member.
The land in 13th Century Austria is ruled by an evil Duke Robert, a feudal lord with a personality like that of Vladimir Putin today, and forced Freihild to marry him.  The poor people are in rebellion, and seek solidarity and leadership.  Out of all of this. Guntram kills Duke Robert in Act 2.  He is fighting not only for Freihild, out of love, but for the poor and disadvantaged.  But he has broken the vow of non-violence. 
In Act 3, he accepts a “life without parole” sentence, of solitary confinement, which is a strange kind of self-punishment.  Freihild gets the kingdom, and will run it with benevolence toward the poor, while forsaking her love for Guntram forever.
In the story, Strauss seems to be trying to construct a model of duty, how one is to balance privilege with responsibility to others, even to openness to sacrifice.
The music starts with an extensive prelude, like an overture, seeming to be in C Major.  After it concludes triumphant, the music of a first scene continues a bit before the characters appear.  Both of the first two acts end loudly, and there is a lot of dissonance with the violence in Act 2.  The last act is simpler, like a slow movement.  The music rises to impassioned climaxes twice before dying away, as Freihild accepts her own destiny.  The music ends in F#, a tri-tone away from the opening music, an unusual relationship (which Elgar used in his Symphony 1, mixing the keys of A-flat and D Minor). 

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