The most poetic line of Hofmannsthal’s libretto for Strauss’s opera (premiered 1919) is sung by a small chorus of night watchmen at the end of act one; they adjure the town’s husbands and wifes to “love one another more than your life, and know this; not for your life’s sake alone is the seed of life given to you, but is solely for the sake of your love…you husbands and wives, who lie in one another’s loving arms, you are the bridge across the abyss over which the dead come back to life. Blessed is your work of love!”
Can art be “a bridge across the abyss”? And are we in fact poised above an abyss, en general? Or does an artist manufacture the concept of “an abyss” to make his work appear to be redemptive? I don’t know, but the piece worked for me, from beginning to end. The theme of the wounding of the falcon, which became a love motif throughout the course of the piece, uniting the Mozartian couples Pamina and Tamino and Papageno and ..I mean, Emperor and Empress, Dyer and wife, was especially memorable; it better have been, because Strauss repeated it a zillion times in a zillion ways, but he had the courage of his convictions, and it paid off; the leitmotivic organization was splendidly cogent.
Strauss may have been a bourgeois, and this passage may appear to be the grossest of bourgeois sentiments, couched in Teutonic sonic gargantua, but I was there today, in the theatre, (albeit the dress rehearsal) and moving it was, and how. The opera started at one and ended at five; that’s four hours! Four great hours. The acts get progressively better, as well. And I’m an opera lover born, but I can lose the thread, time to time, opera is demanding. Not today. And the plot is the most recondite imaginable. This is an encomium, if you like.
If you live in Chicago you ought to go. In the past I’ve been rebuked (getting rebuked is a super fun habit of mine) for not being sufficiently positive about the Lyric Opera; it’s a pleasure to be able to wholeheartedly and absolutely without reservation recommend this splendid effort. Everyone knows how great Deborah Voigt (the Empress) is. And lots of guys know the fine talents of Jill Grove (nurse), Franz Hawlata (Barak the Dyer — WFMT listeners also heard his wonderful Hans Sachs last week) and Christine Brewer (Dyer’s wife); but the tenor who sang the Emperor, an unknown quantity to me, Robert Dean Smith, was equally splendid. And tenors have a tough time making their way in Strauss. Not Mr. Smith, whose scene with the falcon in act two was memorably beautiful. Memorably beautiful. I use words lightly all too often, but not here. Memorably beautiful.
The production is a (reasonably conservative) winner, by Paul Curran, and Sir Andrew Davis and the orchestra were really, really wonderful… and I know I’ve had my criticisms of both orchestra and conductor in the past… this was first rate. The Lyric made my day. Bravi.