Although Friedenstag (1938) may not be, and
probably never can be, one of the more celebrated of Strauss's operas,
it occupies a particularly interesting place in his life. It was conceived
and written during the later 1930s, at the time when his relationship
with the Nazis was at its most difficult.
Although the libretto for Friedenstag was by Josef
Gregor, he had been recommended to Strauss by the Jewish poet Stefan
Zweig (librettist of the earlier opera Die schweigsame Frau (1936),
who became black-listed by the Nazis and left Germany in 1938.
Friedenstag is cast in a single act and, as its name
suggests, is a celebration of the ideal of peace. The style is relatively
austere, concerning a story set in the early 17th century during the
Thirty Years War.
The Commandant of a fortress under siege resolves to
die rather than surrender, but then news of peace arrives and he and
his former enemy embrace with vows to work for a better world. Strauss
complained that this kind of text did not really suit his gifts and
the project was therefore 'a tiring assignment'. And it is true that
the nature of this work is somewhat different from the norm. Male voices
dominate (see the cast list) and there is an important role for the
chorus, with a good deal of solemn choral writing. However, there is
an important part for the Commendant's wife, and her dignified aria
is a memorable inspiration which therefore has a special place in the
Given all this, it is no surprise that Friedenstag
has been recorded relatively few times, just as it is seldom performed
in the theatre. But as we would expect of a master like Strauss, the
work contains fine music and a true understanding of how its particular
agenda can communicate to an audience. It is also a one act opera which
lacks an obvious partner.
This good new recording takes a worthy place alongside
a rather distinguished discography. In fact the opera's original cast
recorded the piece (the performance used to be available on Koch Swann,
but is no longer available). The cast featured artists of the calibre
of Hans Hotter and Viorica Usuleac, conducted by Clemens Krauss, and
Strauss supervised the recording sessions. The there is a version on
Koch Classics (37111-2) conducted by Robert Bass, with a talented cast
throughout the long list of characters. Yet another worthy performance
is conducted for EMI by that excellent Straussian Wolfgang Sawallisch
(CDC5 56850-2), again well sung, with Sabine Haas and Bernd Weikl taking
the leading roles.
Where does this new version conducted by the late Giuseppe
Sinopoli fit in relation to this strong discography? The answer is unequivocal:
it takes a worthy place but it does not assume the position of clear
leader. The greatest strength of the performance is the marvellous choral
singing, which is also well recorded and expertly balanced by both the
engineers and the conductor. The noble closing scene is therefore splendidly
effective and life-enhancing.
If there are doubts, or at least misgivings, they concern
the individual singers. Albert Dohman makes a powerful figure as the
Commandant, as he should, yet there is not necessarily the ring of nobility
to his voice that ideally the role demands (try Hotter for comparison).
Deborah Voigt as the Commandant's wife has the only female role of any
importance, and she makes a strong impression, as her Wagnerian credentials
would lead us to expect. She is at her best in the more forceful music,
but she does not quite summon the eloquence that the part demands.
The secondary roles, and there are plenty of them,
are competently but not strongly taken, and in comparison Sawallisch
fares better with his cast. There is nothing particularly wrong with
the singers Sinopoli has assembled, but they are less distinguished
both individually and as a team. This performance is therefor best described
as a useful addition to the catalogue rather than a compelling and definitive
addition to it.