Friedenstag will probably never be anyone’s favorite Strauss opera, and not only because of the familiar and disconcerting disconnect between its – rather hollow – theme of peace and the circumstances surrounding its genesis and first performance. “Rather hollow” is probably an understatement, and Strauss himself found the politically motivated libretto “wearisome”. Indeed, it is rather obvious that the musical inspiration wasn’t running at its brightest either. The first third of the opera is indeed rather uneventful, containing mostly wandering ruminations around not-particularly-strong ideas. But then it picks up, and especially the music for the scenes featuring Maria are excellent. The final twenty minutes is a riot of glorious, celebratory fortissimos for full soloists, chorus and full orchestra – not profoundly inspired, certainly, but a rather riveting experience nonetheless.
No, you don’t need many versions of this work – there is only so much different interpretations can achieve. But you do need this one. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more powerful case being made for this music. The Dresden Staatskapelle play their hearts out in the more dramatic (or celebratory) scenes (as does the Staatsopernchor), and the color and subtlety with which they imbue the music elsewhere is remarkable. What Sinopoli does with the work – and in particular those otherwise rather empty final scenes – is nothing short of marvelous, and he manages to – almost – convince this listener that the music here is worthy of comparison with Strauss at his best. There is such verve and power in this performance that it almost makes up for the lack of truly inspired content.
The soloists are excellent as well. Alfred Dohnen’s Commandant is brilliant – he carries the weight, beauty and nobility to make this character not only realistic but sympathetic. The smaller roles – mostly male – are uniformly very good as well. However, the star of the show – apart from Sinopoli and the orchestra – is, as it has to be in this work, Deborah Voigt’s magnificent Maria. Yes, it is almost a little bit over the top, the way she brings out the emotional range, subtleties and personal characteristics of this character, but the vigor and passion and power in Voight’s interpretation really makes for an unforgettable experience.
So there it is. This is, I’d say, something of an essential acquisition, and in particular if you are otherwise a fan of Strauss’s operas. It is, indeed, a far cry from his best works, but the performances here are outstanding enough to make this a unique experience. The Deutsche Grammophon sound is superb as well.