Washington Concert Opera’s unique and rare performance of ‘Guntram’

Richard Strauss’ first opera proved a failure. But this early, Wagnerian attempt moved the composer closer to his eventual status as a superstar opera composer.

Antony Walker.
Washington Concert Opera's Artistic Director and Conductor Antony Walker in action. (Courtesy WCO)

WASHINGTON, March 4, 2015 – In the opera world, you know instinctively that an upcoming live performance of an unknown, unloved or under-appreciated work from the past may be the first and last opportunity you’ll get to see and hear it up close and personal. Which means that if you don’t grab a ticket to an advertised performance, you’ll likely never get another chance to see such a work again.

Here in Washington, fortunately, we have the Washington Concert Opera (WCO), an ensemble that specializes in resurrecting, if only for an evening, some of these rare musical creatures. Continuing that tradition this past Sunday, WCO presented a once-in-a-lifetime concert opera performance of Richard Strauss’ very first operatic work, “Guntram,” at GWU’s Lisner Auditorium.

“Guntram” was Strauss’ fledgling 1894 attempt, in a way, to build upon the Wagnerian operatic tradition. Attempting to emulate the master by penning both his own libretto and the score, Strauss erred in two ways: He wasn’t adept at poetry or narrative structure; and his finished opera was far too long, a problem made worse by its nearly impossible vocal demands on the lead soloist.

Sadly for Strauss, “Guntram” was a flop. But Strauss learned his lesson, evolving his own musical style past Wagner’s innovations, while choosing to hire accomplished librettists to create the books and lyrics for his later operas. The new system clicked, rewarding us with masterpieces like “Salome” (recently performed in this area by the Virginia Opera), “Elektra,” “Rosenkavalier” and others that remain in the repertoire to this day.

Meanwhile, 1910, “Guntram” was only performed a few more times after its failed premiere before its composer regretfully allowed it to fade away. Much later in life, he thoroughly revised and cut the original score to produce a new-and-improved version in 1940. It was mounted twice—in 1940 and again in 1942—before it disappeared again.

"Guntram" principals.
“Guntram’s” main characters, L-R: Guntram (Robert Dean Smith); Freihild (Marjorie Owens); and the Old Duke (Tom Fox). (Credit: Don Lassell)

With roughly 45 minutes of music and lyrics left on the cutting room floor, the 1940 revision of “Guntram” brings the opera closer to a manageable length and takes things a bit easier on any Wagnerian heldentenor who chooses to brave this score. Wisely, this is the version that maestro Antony Walker and his noticeably augmented orchestra presented March 1 at Lisner.

“Guntram” is in many ways like an extension of Richard Wagner. Not necessarily the Ring Cycle Wagner, but the Wagner of “Meistersinger,” “Tannhäuser” and “Parsifal” with maybe a touch of “The Flying Dutchman” thrown into its plot.

The opera itself is the deep, mystical, quasi-religious, somewhat improbable tale of its eponymous anti-hero, a wandering minstrel-knight. Given his musical proclivities, it’s not surprising that Guntram is also a member of a guild known as “The Champions of Love.” (There’s the “Meistersinger” connection.)

Perhaps like American “folk singers” of the 1950s and 1960s, Guntram and his fellow Champions wander to-and-fro performing uplifting music and distributing food and sympathy to those less fortunate than themselves, having taken vows to do good and to avoid killing.

Guntram, however, is a bit of a renegade when it comes to those vows. That gets him in a pickle when he encounters an entourage of miserable peasants who complain that hot-headed Duke Robert has been sorely oppressing them, even though the duke’s unfortunate but good-hearted wife, Freihild, has tried to help them.

In short order, Guntram encounters and saves the suicide-minded Freihild from drowning, encountering Duke Robert’s entourage and Robert’s father, the Old Duke. The latter, grateful for Guntram’s heroics, invites him to dine with them and sing to the court. As his reward, Guntram asks only that the royals give the peasants a bit of a break, endearing him to Freihild and infuriating Robert.

After Guntram sings a subversive song, he and Robert quarrel, draw swords and engage in battle, costing Robert his life. The Old Duke has Guntram marched off to prison and execution; the now-husband-free Freihild gets him out and makes herself available for marriage; Guntram’s knightly pals show up to denounce him for violating his vows; and Guntram comes up with a novel solution that satisfies no one but himself.

He renounces Freihild and love, deeming himself unworthy of both, and informs the “Champions of Love” they no longer have jurisdiction over him. He then heads off to become a solitary hermit.

Freihild and Guntram.
Guntram (R) tells a distraught Freihild (L) that he’s off to become a hermit. (Credit: Don Lassell)

So much for verisimilitude in opera. But, as in Wagner, we’re in the land of myths and mists in “Guntram,” a place where legends serve as moral and political parables for modern life. With his surprising personal decisions, Guntram seems to exemplify the Nietzschean ideal of a life-affirming, rugged individualism.

Within the opera’s score itself, we hear snippets of once and future Strauss tone poems like “Ein Heldenleben,” “Don Juan,” and a noticeable quote from “Death and Transfiguration” (“Tod und Verklärung”). Though we’ve never heard this score before, this makes parts of it seem somehow familiar.

WNO’s normal forces were augmented for this performance with as many extra musicians, we suspect, as WCO’s budget allowed. Indeed, Sunday’s performance was suitably Wagnerian and Straussian in scope, although our seats to the right of center took away some of the impact of Strauss’ always-essential brass choirs.

As to the playing of the orchestra itself, it actually sounded impressive, for the most part, under the baton of long-time maestro Antony Walker (who’s also been busy a few blocks away at the Kennedy Center conducting the Washington National Opera’s production of Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” )

There were, alas, subtle errors here and there in tempo and intonation, particularly in the brass. But the WCO Orchestra did remarkably well with a score we imagine none of its musicians had ever seen before.

A consistently excellent choice of vocalists happens to be where WCO really shines for its devotees, and this production was no exception. Leading off, the choice of veteran Wagnerian and Straussian heldentenor Robert Dean Smith for the title role of Guntram was inspired.

Strauss didn’t give his hero a great deal of vocal subtlety in this score, demanding that Guntram sing flat out over a very full orchestra for much of his considerable time on stage. Smith handled the composer’s extreme demands admirably well, only occasionally showing signs of strain. His dramatic and compelling instrument possesses great authority and power, both enhanced by crisp diction and phrasing.

Guntram is a genuinely heroic role. Smith clearly gave the audience an equally heroic performance and perhaps a definitive one, given how rarely this opera is ever performed.

The troubled Freihild is this opera’s second great role, wonderfully and expertly interpreted here by soprano Marjorie Owens, who is also a highly experienced interpreter of industrial strength role in the operas of Strauss, Wagner and Verdi.

Dramatically, Freihild is not the most forceful of operatic roles, given that she spends most of her time on stage as either a victim or a suppliant in spite of her good and noble heart.

Owens manages to lend dignity and even majesty to her much put-upon character, with her rich and seemingly limitless soprano rising to convincing heights in her increasingly charged vocal encounters with Gundram. Their scenes together, particularly in the finale, were among the most exciting moments in this performance.

(Note: Those who enjoyed Owens’ performance here will have another chance to hear her soon. An alumna of the Wolf Trap Opera program, she’ll return here this summer to sing the title role in Verdi’s “Aida” this summer with that company in the Filene Center.)

Although smaller in scope, a third key role in this opera is that of the Old Duke, Freihild’s father, sung here with great force by Wagner veteran Tom Fox, whose bold performance kept many in the audience on the edge of their seats.

While the younger Duke Robert is the real bad guy in this opera, the Old Duke gets bigger and nastier stuff to sing. When Guntram and his swordsmanship dispatch his evil son in the opera’s second half, the Old Duke’s rage knows no bounds.

Fox takes this moment to the limit, venting his towering fury like a medieval Gen. Patton, but doing it with a baritone voice bristling with intimidating majesty.

As Duke Robert, baritone Zachary Nelson shines briefly but intensely in his smaller role, providing enough snarling villainy believably provoke both Smith’s Guntram and Fox’s Old Duke.

We were delighted to see bass Wei Wu—a current Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist with the Washington National Opera—in the role of Guntram’s morally righteous fellow “Champion of Love,” Friedhold. After a brief early appearance, Wu’s character returns near the opera’s end in a major confrontation scene with Guntram.

While Friedhold is not a large role, Wu sang it perfectly. We regard him as a significant new bass talent fully capable of achieving superstar status sooner rather than later. If you’ve ever heard her voice, we think you’ll agree.

Smaller roles in this  opera were nicely interpreted by individual members of the chorus. And lest we forget the WCO male chorus, which borrows a few members of WNO’s chorus, they didn’t get a lot to do in “Guntram.” But when they were on stage (and offstage singing Duke Robert’s funeral dirge) their singing was extraordinarily expressive.

In our opinion, WCO turned in a near-definitive performance of “Guntram” earlier this week, which is a wonder when it comes to an opera we’ve never heard before and probably won’t get a chance to hear again in a live performance. True, the orchestra might have done well with a little more rehearsal time. But having said that, we’d observe that Strauss’ first opera still contains a great deal of lovely music, most of which the orchestra articulated quite decently. We’re glad to have had this unique chance to hear this music live with such fine singers in the lead roles.

Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)

Coming Next Season at Washington Concert Opera:

Alas, WCO only gives us two one-time-only performances. But they are inevitably interesting and worth heading down to Lisner to enjoy.

If you’re interested in the company’s just-announced 2015-2016 offerings, next season’s pair will include Rossini’s not-too-frequently encountered serious opera “Semiramide,” starring Australian soprano Jessica Pratt (not to be confused with American pop singer Jessica Pratt) in the title role of a less-than-ethical Babylonian Queen. Opera Today has dubbed Pratt the “Bell Canto Queen.” Date: Nov. 22, 2015.

Also on tap: A late-winter performance of Donizetti’s infrequently encountered “La favorite,” starring stunning young mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey—yet another Wolf Trap Opera alumna turned star—in the title role as mistress of the King of Castile during the Moors’ medieval Crusade against southern Europe, including Spain. Lindsey recently reprised her much-praised role as Nicklaus in this year’s New York Metropolitan Opera production of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” (“Les contest d’Hoffmann”). Date: March 4, 2016.

Tickets and information: Subscription tickets for both operas available now. Renewing subscribers will be guaranteed their current seats until June 1, 2015. Single tickets will go on sale at a later date, TBA. Those renewing subscriptions and new subscribers will be able to order additional single tickets at the time they place their order. For subscription tickets, call WCO’s box office at 202-364-5826.

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