Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Music Webmaster
Len Mullenger:

Reviews from other months
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949) Guntram - Opera in three Acts    Alan Woodrow; Elisabeth Wachutka Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana conducted by Gustav Kuhn ARTE NOVA 74321 61339 2 [100:22] only £9.00 incl VAT



Arte Nova are to be congratulated in releasing yet another little known, and under-rated opera. At such a bargain basement price, adventurous opera lovers should be unable to resist sampling this first opera of Richard Strauss. They should be warned however that Arte Nova's generosity is limited to rather terse notes and a libretto in German only, so those without this language facility will have a hard time following the detail of the plot and will not be able to appreciate every subtle interpretative nuance. However this irritation should not deter prospective buyers. After having read the plot synopsis in English one can sit back and luxuriate in this often glorious music.

Guntram was composed between 1887 and 1893 and first performed at Weimar (shades of Wagner) in 1894. At the time, Strauss already had the success of Aus Italien, Macbeth, Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung behind him. Yet Guntram was such a disaster that Strauss, as he recalls in his memories of the opera reproduced in this CD booklet, lost his courage to write for the theatre for another six years. It was not until 1940 when a revised version which Strauss had been working on from 1934-39 that the opera came to be in any way appreciated. Strauss vividly recalls all the traumas and difficulties associated with the early productions in Weimar, Frankfurt and Prague before the opera was abandoned after several attempts to 'liven it up'. He recalls how his pupil, the tenor Heinrich Zeller, agonized over the 'unnecessarily strenuous role' which defeated his voice - the number of his bars, when counted, was found to exceed those in Tristan! Later another horrified tenor, Mikorey, whose memory, at times, failed him during the premiere, threatened that he would only continue to sing the part if he received a higher pension! Added to all this aggravation, were rehearsal tantrums from Strauss's then fiancée Pauline de Ahna (they were married in1894) who felt she was not getting sufficient attention from conductor Strauss. She threw the piano score at him! Then the orchestra got stroppy. They pleaded to be freed from this "scourge of God."

In truth, Guntram is an uneven work and unbalanced in favour of the tenor voice, Guntram himself. Fortunately, in this live recording, we have a fine dramatic tenor in Alan Woodrow, with the stamina and expressive resource to carry the role. The other lead, Elisabeth Wachutka as Freihild, has the power we associate with those Wagnerian sopranos to sustain the many high notes in her equally demanding role. (Although she is not quite so centre stage as Guntram for this is more of an opera for the male voice as opposed to Der Rosenkavalier and other later Strauss works in which he favoured the female voice). The work is also unbalanced in other vocal respects. Take Freihild's admittedly beautiful ACT III aria when she asserts her love for Guntram and please that he should escape from prison with her. Guntram is only allowed to gasp out her name at infrequent intervals and we are left more than half-expecting her aria to develop into the impassioned love duet that never happens.

Briefly Guntram tells of the knight Guntram who is a champion of love and peace. He is appalled at the acts of tyranny and cruelty by Duke Robert. He saves Freihild, Duke Robert's wife when in despair, because the Duke has forbidden her to aid the poor, she ties to drown herself. In gratitude, Freihild's father, the old Duke (yes it is confusing) grants Guntram's request that the poor be freed. But this action infuriates the Duke Robert who remains suspicious of Guntram. Act II takes place in the castle where new found peace is being celebrated. Freihild persuades Guntram to sing his passionate plea for peace and of the horrors of war. His audience is moved, that is all except Duke Robert who is madly jealous and orders Guntram's arrest after a messenger bursts in to bring the news that war has flared up again. . Duke Robert attacks Guntram. Guntram kills Robert in self-defence.The old Duke is outraged when he hears the news and believing Guntram is guilty of murder has the luckless knight thrown into prison. Act III opens in the dungeon where Guntram is imprisoned. Guntram expresses his remorse explaining to Freihild that he is guilty in as much as he was jealous of Duke Robert's possession of Freihild. She asserts her love and pleads with Guntram to escape. Even though his name is cleared, he declares that for his sin of jealousy he must renounce his love for Freihild and leave her to carry on her altruistic works as the new Duchess.

The opera begins with a substantial and impressive Wagnerian Prelude that speaks of heroism, chivalry and compassion. In its more mystical reaches this Prelude is pure Strauss and it looks forward to the language of Der Rosenkavalier. Act I includes the first of Guntram's three considerable arias as he reflects on the beauty of nature and the evils of mankind. Freihild's material as she is introduced is less impressive except in so far as it gives Wachutka the opportunity to reach for a considerable number of top notes. Ivan Konsulov as the villainous Duke Robert chews the scenery but cannot quite get his mouth around his German. This Act's ensemble vocal writing (and the singing on this recording) is unremarkable. Act II has another impressive but briefer Prelude culminating in some fine multi-part writing for the four minstrels singing at the celebrations in the castle

The second of Guntram's big extensive arias is his impassioned plea for peace and again Woodrow's oaken, persuasive eloquence impresses. The fight music is a little prolonged; it is powerful and darkly dramatic but teeters just this side of being OTT. Act III is probably the most successful musically with Freihild's aria mentioned previously and the most beautiful of Guntram's arias as he renounces Freihild's love and encourages her altruism. This lovely aria has that kind of shimmer and sheen that one associates with the purity of the Presentation of the Rose scene of Der Rosenkavalier.

A critic commenting on the live performance of this opera that has been released as this recording wrote: "Gustav Kuhn...created tone colours and melodic-harmonic contrasts of all shades. One could almost call this a model performance..." True in as much as I found my ears time and again being seduced through the vocal line to attend to the fabulous orchestral colours which Richard Strauss created for his first opera. Not surprisingly for Strauss still had to perfect his vocal technique; a technique he would bring to perfection in operas such as Der Rosenkavalier; Arabella; Ariadne Auf Naxos; and Capriccio.

[The Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana has its home in The Marches, a region in central Italy. It is one of the twelve national Italian symphony orchestras.]


Ian Lace


Ian Lace

Return to Index