OperaWire’s Staff Picks Their Favorite Richard Strauss Operas

By OperaWireStaff

Next to Verdi, Wagner, Mozart, and Puccini, Richard Strauss is one of the most important composers in the history of opera.

Born on June 11, 1864, he was a prominent figure during the early part of the 20th century. Many of his most famed operas are major staples of the repertory and even his lesser-known works are held in high esteem throughout the world.

In celebration of the composer’s birthday, OperaWire’s staff has compiled their individual favorites when it comes to Strauss.

Which is your favorite Strauss opera and why? Let us know in the comments below!

John Carroll – “Ariadne auf Naxos”

Despite the unusual journey “Ariadne auf Naxos” took to become the opera we know now — its amazing prologue added in 1916 several years after the composition of the main opera (in 1912) — this great opera feels inevitable. At its heart it celebrates music and theater with a style that at times feels like opera at its grandest, yet is actually a fairly intimate chamber work.

It’s a witty debate about the cultural value of both high art and popular entertainment, a contrast ingeniously built directly into its plot with the shallow commedia dell’arte troupe and the rich opera serie forced to be performed simultaneously. The meta-prologue, stocked full of theater and diva stereotypes, was a flash of inspiration from Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It amusingly sends up the process of art’s creation and its commodification, while setting up a literal and theoretical competition of high vs. low art.

Strauss was an aficionado of the soprano voice and certainly this opera as much as any displays this gift. Ariadne’s music is some of the most sublime and noble ever composed for lyric soprano. The Composer, though now often sung by a mezzo, is scored for a vibrant soprano who can romp her way through this marvelously mercurial character. The nymphs are the equivalent of a heavenly classical Andrews Sisters, with their undulating, watery trios.

Zerbinetta, however, is where Strauss wins the soprano game for all-time. With her, he essentially invented a new style of coloratura virtuosity to evoke this flirtatious comedienne and her “Thank You, Next” worldview. Hers is a whole new musical language, woven in a modern fabric yet still melodic and tonal. It’s a wildly demanding roller coaster ride of a role with wide leaps, chromatic melismas, modulations, suspensions, cadenzas, staccati, high E’s (or F#-sharps in the original 1912 version), and a trill on a high D. It is arguably the most difficult role ever written for coloratura soprano, and a thrilling centerpiece to this remarkable opera.

Sophia Lambton – “Four Last Songs”

Awander in preternatural, mystical lands, Strauss’s 1948 “Vier letze Lieder” musically veer off into intangible, fantastical grounds that espouse oversized, brisk motifs; enlarged flora and fauna. Whether one imagines that “Frühling”‘s whirl-like melodies on strings are the spirals in Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” finally musically realized, or that unexpected staccati of woodwind are the swift bounds of Alice, newly plummeted into the Wonderland, or that the timid tremolos on cellos that begin “Beim Schlafengehen” are echoes that resound in Virgil’s Underworld, the work makes known that the invasive world described therein has snapped off from reality. Death is at the core of three of the four songs – but rears a handsome head: departing from the earthly ambience becomes mysteriously seductive and entrancing as we listen to unravelling and haunting vocal escapades and escalades.
As the harmonious pieces that make up classical music crack into splinters of fragments following both the World Wars, Strauss conserves mellifluous harmonies in favor of conferring that atrophied state to the mind. It is our imagination now lost amidst hallucinations, worn-out fantasies and visions of a lost reality; striving to reach ecstasy in the unfinishing scale of “und die Se…e…e…e…e…le unbewacht”: words that begin to describe how the soul wants “freely and unguardedly to take flight.” The furious euphoria that pumps “Im Abendrot” (“At Sunset”) into existence unwinds to introduce lyrics that celebrate death, emulating it in a “Tristan und Isolde”-“Liebestod” fashion – but with plentiful, uninhibited joy. It is, in the words of the song, a “stiller Freide / So tief im Abendrot.”

Eerie is the concept that the afterlife is more enticing than the present. Yet the “Four Last Songs” emblematize a time in which that could have been the normal train of thought – and as perseverative and obstinate as chronic trills on piccolos that mark its end.

Lois Silverstein – “Salome”

Richard Strauss’s “Salome” strikes a chord every time we see it. Is it the Lolita-like seduction of the heroine? Is it the centralizing of that seduction that draws us in every single time the opening chord sounds? The textural dissonance harmonizing with the moral dissonance that dominates? That brings clash to the forefront of Strauss’s score?

It is a toss-up for us to best “Salome” or “Elektra” as our favorite Strauss one-act, although each has female fatale magnetizes us. The opera is short, the libretto confined, the action direct, the tension extreme, every step of the way. We are locked in. We are imprisoned with the danger. We are commingled with the archetypes of eros and evil, death and divination, detailed and drummed into our blood like a plague borne of insects. It is deliverance of our nightmares only through resolution of the story and the musical narrative that brings it along.

“Salome” kisses the severed head of John the Baptist and Elektra brings about her mother’s death. Are humans capable of this? Yes, Strauss/Hofmannsthal say. Edgy, delirious, dynamic, we are gripped by the collision of layers we carry. Studded with power and deliberation, we are stunned into deliverance only with the melodic and harmonic completion with which the operas conclude. For a time, we are mollified. At least, for the moment, it is done, the devil in the ground again. Thank god.

David Salazar – “Elektra”

Strauss’ “Elektra” is undeniably an opera unlike any other ever written. For starters, it moves at an overwhelming speed that has probably never been matched. Just sit down with a full orchestra score and try to follow along. It will give you an idea of just how swiftly Strauss jumps from one idea to the next. But what really comes about from such an experiment is the understanding that this is an opera about chaos and how that chaos has taken hold of its central figure to the point of rendering her mad from the start of the work to its terrifying and complex finale.

But Strauss takes things further with the structure of his work, which while linear, is rigidly episodic. While Elektra remains at the forefront of every single scene, all the central characters get some facetime with her. And despite the varying lengths of these scenes (the work runs for less than 2 hours non-stop), we get a full emotional and tonal sense of each and every one. Strauss manages to develop entire worlds and characters with incredible economy.

It’s a masterpiece of musical propulsion, yet intense immersion and complex character design that few other composers ever managed.

Francisco Salazar- “Salome,” “Elektra,” “Four Last Songs”

I have a hard time picking just one Richard Strauss opera. I love so many moments from a number of works and when you listen to his oeuvre at large, you are sucked in by the composer’s musical invention and his drama. “Elektra”  and “Salome” I find as equals for their propulsive scores and for their stellar soprano roles. They also combine Strauss’ experimental side with his true romantic nature and showcase an extremely emotional and rousing composer. It doesn’t hurt that in the brief hour and forty-five-minute scores he packs compelling stories and riveting moments. The orchestras are also dense and full of diverse colors that give the audience so much to take in in such a short period.

But then there are the other works. “Ariadne auf Naxos” combines the romanticism with the Germanic comedy and “Die Frau Ohne Schatten” creates a score filled with mystical colors while “Arabella” has one of the most gorgeous finales in all of operatic history.

Then there are the “Four Last Songs” which are not operas but they contain such rich melodic genius and their subtlety and delicacy is what makes these four songs so vital in the repertory. Performed with the right vigor and sensitivity you can obtain one of the richest and emotional operatic experiences in a non-opera. You can perhaps argue that the “Four Last Songs” saw Strauss at both his most expressive and his most restrained. And you could also say it is the most mature work that uses the music to enrich the gorgeous text.

The final movement “Im Abendrot” is perhaps my favorite. There is a mix of joy and nostalgia in the music that begins the movement and then suddenly it takes a turn and the final notes for the soprano are unresolved as the voice blends right into the orchestra. The final notes die down and leave the listener wanting more. You are left in a meditative state thinking about the unity of the music.

Greg Waxberg – Der Rosenkavalier

Being able to write about a favorite Strauss opera gives me particular pleasure because, earlier in my life, I didn’t like his music. How times have changed and how grateful I am! At some point, his music started to click with me, I began to savor the sound of women singing together, and “Der Rosenkavalier” became the composer’s opera in whose luxuriousness I continue to indulge.

Highlights: lush strings, glorious entwining of female voices, beautiful waltzes, orchestral drama of the presentation of the rose, the sublime Final Trio—one gorgeous moment after another.

However, since they are completely different and equally amazing, I must quickly mention “Elektra” as my second-favorite Strauss. Its exciting orchestration, energy, and rhythms, especially when Elektra dances, are awesome!

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