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Reviving Strauss's 'Guntram'

(L to R) Zachary Nelson, Robert Dean Smith, Maestro Antony Walker, Marjorie Owens, Tom Fox, and cast
in Guntram, Washington Concert Opera (photo by Don Lassell)

Wagner's last opera was Richard Strauss's Guntram, or so the joke goes. Its story, about a wandering minstrel-knight who falls in love with another man's wife, only to deny himself her love because of his guilt at killing her husband, has strong echoes of Meistersinger here, Parsifal there. Derivative or not, the composer's first performed opera was a flop, both in 1894 when it was first premiered and after Strauss revised it in 1940. The libretto, written by Strauss in imitation of Wagner, is a bit of a dud -- although more compact than Wagner's more unwieldy examples -- but the music is generally quite glorious, especially in the revised version performed by Washington Concert Opera on Sunday evening at Lisner Auditorium. It was the first time the work came under review in the history of Ionarts, a welcome addition to the celebration of the Strauss anniversary, for which the National Symphony Orchestra and other groups focused on the same old, often-done works.

Another reason why Guntram is so little performed is that the title role is a killer, and the risk for a heroic tenor in learning it is far greater than with a more established work by Strauss or Wagner, where the payoff in future performances is more certain. Robert Dean Smith, an American singer we have reviewed mostly in Europe, gave it his all. His reliably powerful instrument, giving out only on a few strained high notes over two hours of mostly impassioned shouting, still had considerable suavity and suppleness in Guntram's Act II song scene. One of the best young Strauss voices I have heard in recent years -- soprano Marjorie Owens, heard at Wolf Trap's Ariadne in 2008 -- surpassed Smith as Freihild, the role created by Pauline de Ahna, the soprano who would become Strauss's wife. While Owens had plenty of zip to launch herself over the large orchestra, the voice is a precision instrument, silky but full-bodied, particularly exultant in the awakening scene toward the end of the second act.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Washington Concert Opera exhumes Strauss rarity — once (Washington Post, March 3)
Freihild's evil husband, Duke Robert, is not that much of a role, sung capably by Annapolis-born baritone Zachary Nelson. The villain duties fall more to Freihild's father, the Old Duke, voiced with snarling outrage by baritone Tom Fox, while bass Wei Wu, a regular in the Washington National Opera young artist program, had a robust turn as Guntram's fellow-knight, Friedhold. The supporting cast was generally strong, with a stand-out performance from the youthful, bright-toned tenor of James Flora as the Duke's Fool.

Antony Walker, who is also mid-run as conductor of Washington National Opera's production of Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites, brought out this perfumed score's beauties. His hardy orchestra could have benefited from another rehearsal or two, to be sure, but they did justice to Strauss's youthful excesses -- double harps and double timpani, the latter with plenty of rumble in the battle scene -- if not yet approaching the wonders of the later orchestrations. The strings, in particular, felt underpowered -- numbers-wise, 10/8/7/6/4 -- and at moments of great strain, like the conclusion of the first act, the sound squealed at the edge of ugliness. The male chorus, with a number of regulars from the WNO chorus, was stalwart in their limited appearances, most beautifully in the off-stage monastic Requiem Mass sung for the murdered Duke Robert.

Washington Concert Opera's 2015-2016 season is devoted to the bel canto era, with performances of Rossini's Semiramide (November 22, 2015) and Donizetti's La Favorite (March 4, 2016).

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