Opera in three acts. Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes.
If Salome is a soprano marathon, this is the tenor equivalent. Although broken up with two intervals because of scene changes not found in the next three operas Strauss wrote, the tenor lead is almost always on stage. His first opera, it was rarely performed for its first forty years of existence although his future wife created the role of Freihild.
PLOT: Germany, 13th century. A reversed Tannhauser in which the saintly tenor redeems the soprano Freihild (and her duchy) from her wicked baritone husband Robert. Guntram is arrested but ultimately gives up the woman he loves to become a hermit to repent for the one sin he has committed, his jealousy for Freihild while she was Robert’s wife.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A forest glade by a lake. (36 minutes)
0: The prelude ** is a seven to ten minute tone poem which starts off with a rather lovely leitmotif (Guntram) which will be repeated over and over again. The rest is good nature music and the singing sort of just happens out of all of this. The symphonic froth continues as Guntram and Friedhold (Champions of Love) distribute food to the poor, one of them a very moody contralto who tells about how Duke Robert has just brutally put down a rebellion caused by his own greed. His wife, Freihild, however, is really a lovely person and called “the mother of the poor”.
14: Guntram reflects on his hope of softening Duke Robert’s heart to peace with his song as the froth goes on until it gets a bit more energetic. This is a rather lovely tenor aria from Strauss **, a composer who in the future would be notoriously unkind to his tenors.
20: Freihild herself comes on and attempts to drown herself in the lake. Guntram saves her not knowing who she is but taking pity on her situation. When he discovers who she is, to a combination of ornery music that sounds a little like the score of Disney’s The Black Cauldron and other more lyrical outbursts, he falls in love with her *.
32: Freihild’s father, the Old Duke, comes on looking for his daughter. Out of thanks, the Duke invites Guntram to the song contest at their castle. Robert comes on to some furious music *; his first encounter with Guntram does not go very well.
34: The scene that ends the act *, with bells and tambourins among other orchestral and melodic trappings that are obviously Straussian, with all of them about to go to the castle, smells all too much like the end of act one of Tannhauser,
ACT 2: The grand hall of the castle. (33 minutes)
0: Happy, celebratory music as the inhabitants of the castle welcome the new peace and probably the least Wagnerian music in the score *. Four minstrels sing of the victory over the insurgents. Guntram has second thoughts about singing, but Freihild’s apparent misery gives him enough motivation.
7: Guntram’s “Fridenserzahlung” ** at first comes off rather ornery but as it develops it is really very nice as he compare/contrasts peace and war.
15: Some Wagnerian bits of angst come in about eight minutes when a messenger bursts in to tell Robert that war has flared up again and Guntram tries to dissuade him from attacking. Guntram then slays Robert in self-defence after the latter tries to pull a knife on him *.
The Old Duke orders Guntram’s arrest in a wondering and long patch of Wagnerian recitative. He puts up no resistance and even helps to carry out the body of the man who attacked him as he is taken to the castle dungeon.
28: All that is left now is for Freihild (the only one left on stage) to emote for five minutes about realizing she loves Guntram *. It eventually warms up and she finishes well to some very obviously mature Strauss themes which will be repeated in other later works again and again. What I am saying is that here is the prototype.
ACT 3: A dungeon. (34 minutes).
0: A sunrise, angst from the orchestra, and then monks chanting over the body of Duke Robert *.
7: Guntram awakens and is interrupted by Freihild who offers up some passionate remarks. Freihild goes into a long aria that seems to be referencing the Lieberstod **. Guntram can do nothing but infrequently call out her name. The aria finally turns into a brief duet, still pregnant with Wagnerian angst as the Old Duke arrives.
15: The Guntram motif bursts out as the Old Duke orders that the killer stands before a tribunal **. Guntram declares he killed Robert in self-defence, but that he is guilty of being adulterously in love with Freihild when he killed her husband and so he must reject her love and become a hermit. The next five to ten minutes are probably the most Wagnerian in the score with brass blaring out themes reminding one of the Ring Cycle. The Old Duke decides to free Guntram.
24: Guntram tells Freihild she must continue her good works without him to references to the Klingsor motif from Parsifal. The love motif returns, albeit rather forlorn ** as he explains his philosophy of life to her.
30: Guntram bids her farewell to a crescendo and a patch of calmer stuff including a return of the main themes of the score **.
This is an okay opera, a good first try and although it obviously owes much to Wagner (more Tannhauser and Lohengrin and to some extent Tristan und Isolde than the Ring and Parsifal), the independent voice of Richard Strauss is already here, particularly in the orchestration and the usage of brass. Many of the concepts one thinks of as particularly Strauss are all already here. The opera does seem rushed, although this is probably because it is cut from the original three and a quarter hour long score, and this does make multiple elements of the storyline (the love between Guntram and Freihild, the wickedness and death of Robert) feel rather forced for theatrical convention rather than organic. Even without this the story is not all that emotionally satisfying and the whiffs of holiness (obviously meant to mimic Parsifal) are not as dramatically effective. Guntram’s motivations for goodness and repentance are never made clear beyond it being the right thing to do, which works in real life, but is rather poor drama. Freihild, the only other character who is satisfactorily drawn, is a damsel in distress without any independent thoughts beyond suicide until after she is a widow. Her father is more interesting than her bore of a husband. Apart from Friedhold, whose name is far too close to that of the prima donna, the other characters are generic stock: “the old woman”, “the second young man”. The musical highlights would be the first prelude and patches of the third act. It’s a B-.