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Review: American Symphony Orchestra Pairs Two Politically Themed One-Act Operas in Concert at Carnegie Hall

American Symphony Orchestra

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, October 22, 2016

On the evening of the dubious third debate of the 2016 election season, the American Symphony Orchestra provided a welcomed musicological diversion at Carnegie Hall. Somewhat with the intention of examining our current political conundrums through the lens of this tumultuous and artistically rich era of Germany between the world wars, Leon Botstein conducted a program of two rarely performed one-act operas by Austrian composers, Ernst Krenek’s Der Diktator and Richard Strauss’s Friedenstag.

Der Diktator was composed in 1926, during the Weimar Republic and in an environment of artistic experimentation. In his program notes, Botstein noted that Krenek was influenced by the concept of “New Objectivity” and the “topical opera.” The libretto, Krenek’s own, centers around a dictator said to be modeled after Mussolini. But rather than being about his rise to dictatorship, or the politics of the era, this quite surreal piece tells the story of a love triangle, and the seductiveness of power.

Strauss’s Friedenstag, one of his later operas, with a libretto by Joseph Gregor, is a work sounding very different from, say, Salome. It deals with the end of the Thirty Years’ War of 1648, and the 1938 premiere was attended by Hitler, but Strauss had a complicated history with the Nazi regime and due to its subject matter the piece was apparently not perceived warmly by those in power.

Strauss’s superiority as a composer was well demonstrated by the juxtaposition of these two operas, in his mastery of sustaining long arching dramatic and musical tension, and rich orchestration, here depicting cannon explosions and clamorous, joyous distant bells, and ultimately the spiritual sense of relief at the arrival of peace after many years of oppression.

The harmonic language of Krenek’s music has a grey quality, and while expertly performed by all involved, neither the story’s characters or their situation seemed to resonate deeply, for this listener. While both operas lacked a very compelling libretto, Strauss’s music ultimately elevated Friedenstag‘s skeleton of a story to something transcendent.

The orchestra performed brilliantly, with some particularly successful playing by the french horn section in the Strauss. Special commendation must go to Kirsten Chambers, who stepped in last minute to sing the demanding role of Maria in the Strauss. Otherwise, the vocal heavy lifting of the evening was performed by baritone Donnie Ray Albert who embodied Krenek’s lustful dictator with aplomb, as well as the central character of the Commandant in Friedenstag. Karen Chia-Ling Ho was as heartbreaking as Maria in Der Diktator as Krenek’s music would allow, and also especially assured was bass Ricardo Lugo as Sergeant in the Strauss. The Bard Festival Chorale performed beautifully (as the chorus in the opera) and several members of the chorus stepped forward to ably sing the smaller solo roles. All in all, the evening was worth the effort, although I suspect that few in the audience will be clamoring to hear either of these rather arid works again.

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Der Diktator and Friedenstag presented by the American Symphony Orchestra on October 19, 2016 at Carnegie Hall, Stern Auditorium.  Der Diktator; music and libretto by Ernst Krenek; Friedenstag; music by Richard Strauss, libretto by Joseph Gregor.  The American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein; The Bard Festival Chorale, James Bagwell, Director. With: Donnie Ray Albert, baritone; Kirsten Chambers, soprano; Ilana Davidson, soprano; Mark Duffin, tenor; Steven Eddy, baritone; Karen Chia-ling Ho, soprano; Scott Joiner, tenor; Doug Jones, tenor; Ricardo Lugo, bass; Carsten Wittmoser, bass-baritone.

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