As in my Verdi list, I have listed the titles of Richard Strauss’s operas in three different colors:
Red means I have seen the opera at least once (but usually more often than that) on stage, with costumes, stage sets, lighting, acting, etc.
Green means I have only seen it in concert, with the singers dressed formally and standing in front of the orchestra when it is their turn to sing.
Black means I’ve never seen it at all.
Guntram (1894) and Feuersnot (1901), the first two operas by Richard Strauss (1864-1949), did not attract much attention at the time and are seldom (if ever) performed today, but in those early years he was developing a reputation as a composer of orchestral works, such as his ‘tone-poems’ Don Juan (1888), Also sprach Zarathustra (1896) and Ein Heldenleben (1898).
Salome (1905), the third opera by Richard Strauss, was an immediate and lasting success and remains to this day his most-often-performed opera. It is based on a drama by Oscar Wilde which reinterprets the biblical story (Mark 6:21-28) of a beautiful young Galilean princess, the daughter of Herodias and the stepdaughter of Herod Antipas.
Salome’s lecherous stepfather promises (swears a solemn oath, in fact) to give her whatever she wants if she does an erotic dance for him and his guests. After her dance, he is horrified when she demands the head of his prisoner Jochanan (John the Baptist) on a silver platter.
Inevitably, some people were scandalized by Salome: the clergy, the German emperor and even Marie Wittig, the then-famous soprano who sang the title role in the world premiere in Dresden. During the rehearsals, she kept protesting that she was a respectable woman who would never say or do any of the outrageous things that Salome has to say (sing) and do on stage.
The funny thing was that fifty-two years earlier, in 1853, the soprano Fanny Salvini-Donatelli had voiced similar complaints while rehearsing for the world premiere of Verdi’s La traviata in Venice. Apparently she felt it was beneath her dignity to be playing the role of a consumptive young courtesan (a high-class prostitute dying of tuberculosis) rather than a queen or a goddess. After the premiere her singing was praised but she was generally thought to be too old, too stout and too healthy-looking for the role.
Many singers of the title role in Strauss’s Salome have also been chosen for their vocal power rather than their physical appearance. But some of them have both, for instance Zehra Yildiz 1996 in Schwerin, Germany. She danced the entire opera, and at the end of the Dance of the Seven Veils she had shed all seven of them and at least seemed to be standing naked for a moment before her stage-mother wrapped her in a bathrobe.
Some stage directors find ways to avoid the dance altogether. In Christof Nel’s production (Frankfurt 1999), Salome was portrayed by Nina Warren as a snotty, rebellious teen-ager. For the dance, she kicked off her shoes, climbed up onto the billiard table, struck a defiant pose and stood motionless while all fourteen men on the stage (I counted them) were the ones who did the dancing. Two of them grabbed her shoes and fondled them as fetish objects, while Strauss’s shimmering music filled the hall.
In Barrie Kosky’s production (Frankfurt 2020), the amazing Ambur Braid dances (and writhes) throughout the entire opera, illuminated by constantly changing spotlights on an otherwise completely black stage.
I have seen other productions of Salome in Bonn, Munich and Paris (standing room at the Bastille Opera) and in Liège, Belgium. The Liège performance was in French (as was Oscar Wilde’s original play), but all the others were in German.
Elektra (1909) was Strauss’s first collaboration with the Austrian playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929), who became his librettist for Elektra and five later operas.
Strauss was worried at first that Elektra was too similar to Salome. Both are short operas (less than two hours, usually played without an intermission). Both operas have huge orchestras playing drastic and sometimes dissonant music. Both operas are about troubled princesses with strong, obsessive emotions. Both princesses dance (for different reasons) and both die at the end. The composer and the librettist corresponded about this, with Strauss listing the similarities and Hofmannsthal emphasizing the differences.
I’ve seen three different productions of Elektra in Frankfurt alone: by Nuria Espert 1994, Falk Richter 2004 and Claus Guth 2023. And I’ve seen at least four more productions in other cities, including Peter Konwitschny’s staging in Stuttgart 2005: Starting about twenty minutes before show time, as soon as the doors to the auditorium in Stuttgart were opened and we spectators started taking our seats, there was a wordless scene taking place on the stage in which a father, Agamemnon, was playing happily with his three children in and around a large bathtub. This joyful scene ended abruptly when Agamemnon was murdered in the bathtub before the eyes of the children. Then the opera started with the loud and menacing Agamemnon motif and went on to show how the children, now grown up, finally avenged their father’s death.
Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose, 1911) went off in entirely different direction. Strauss said he wanted to compose a ‘Mozart opera’, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal obliged by writing a long, leisurely libretto set in polite aristocratic society in Vienna in the 18th century. In their abundant correspondence, Strauss and Hofmannsthal referred to Der Rosenkavalier as ‘our Marriage of Figaro’ — not that the story was the same, but some of the characters were similarly attractive and had similar concerns, such as getting somewhat older and wondering where the time had gone.
Of course a ‘Mozart opera’ by Strauss is different from a Mozart opera by Mozart. The most obvious difference is that Strauss’s orchestra is nearly three times as large as Mozart’s.
Some of Strauss’s hardcore Salome-and-Elektra fans were dismayed and accused the composer of copping out, but otherwise Der Rosenkavalier was a huge success. I have seen two different productions of it in Frankfurt (several times each), staged by Ruth Berghaus in 1992 and by Claus Guth in 2015. Also I have seen other productions in Wiesbaden and Munich, and an especially memorable one by the Welsh National Opera (which plays not only in Wales, but all over the South of England) in the Birmingham Hippodrome in 1994, with the then-unknown Susan Graham in the trouser-role of the charming young aristocrat Octavian.
Ariadne auf Naxos (1916) took a while to catch on with the public, but in recent decades it has become one of Strauss’s quite-often-performed operas (some years even overtaking Elektra as # 3). Hugo von Hofmannsthal again wrote the libretto, which starts with preparations for an opera performance in the house of ‘the richest man in Vienna’ and then goes on, after the intermission, to the performance of the opera itself.
The red strings on the 2013 Frankfurt program booklet, above, are a reference to the ancient Greek legend in which Ariadne provided her hero Theseus with a ball of string so he could find his way back out of the Labyrinth after killing the Minotaur. But the opera is about what happens later, when Theseus abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos.
I didn’t like Ariadne auf Naxos at first, because I was unimpressed with Peter Mussbach’s 1993 staging in Frankfurt. But in 1996 I went to Koblenz and saw a lively production done by young singers and actors with lots of energy and enthusiasm. Looking back at the cast list from Koblenz, I see that the role of The Composer was sung by Claudia Mahnke, who was then just getting started and would go on to sing the same role with great success in Brigitte Fassbaender’s new Frankfurt staging twenty years later.
Another production that I liked very much was David Hermann’s 2017 staging in Nancy, France — a staging that made fun of aristocratic posturing and included, as a unique feature, a genuine mud-puddle on the island of Naxos.
Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow, 1919) includes some beautiful music, but has never been a popular success because of Hofmannsthal’s cringeworthy libretto.
The woman without a shadow is a queen who cannot have children, the shadow being a one-to-one symbol for fertility. She solves this problem by buying the shadow of the dyer’s wife, who no longer wants it.
As I have explained elsewhere, the dyeing of cloth by hand in small batches was a reasonably profitable business throughout most of the nineteenth century, until synthetic dyes were invented and the process of dyeing quickly became industrialized. One of the main characters of Die Frau ohne Schatten is a dyer, an idealized skilled craftsman who supports his wife and brothers by working with his hands. (His name was Barak, by the way — no relation to Barack Obama.) The opera is set in some shadowy past time and place in which cloth dyeing was still done by hand, not in factories.
In that post, I wrote that I didn’t like Die Frau ohne Schatten the first four or five times I saw it, “mainly because I was put off by Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s pseudo-mythical libretto with its chorus of unborn children and its idealization of large families. But after a while Richard Strauss’s music started getting to me, and I decided that the libretto couldn’t be so bad if it inspired the composer to such fantastic music.”
A commenter asked: “I wonder, if you didn’t like it the first time why did you go back?” and I answered: “Actually, it never occurred to me not to go back. I have six opera subscriptions here in Frankfurt, so I automatically see each production more than once. Also some friends of mine were singing in it or playing in the orchestra, and they all liked it, so wanted to see what I was missing.” (Somehow I neglected to add another obvious reason, namely that I had to teach about it.)
All told, I have seen Die Frau ohne Schatten maybe eight or nine times, but all in the same staging, namely Christof Nel’s Frankfurt production that premiered in 2003 and was revived in 2004, 2005, 2009 and 2014.
Intermezzo (1924) is an ‘autobiographical’ opera that I have never seen. Strauss wrote the libretto himself, because Hofmannsthal wasn’t interested.
Die ägyptische Helena (The Egyptian Helen, 1928) again has a text by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, but the story is hard to follow and the opera is seldom performed.
I saw it in a concert performance in Frankfurt in 2015, and found it interesting mainly because I knew most of the singers, so I was rooting for them. Brenda Rae was the sorceress Aithra, with Beau Gibson, Karen Vuong, Maria Pantiukhova, Louise Alder, Anna Ryberg, Katharina Ruckgaber and Nina Tarandek coming on to sing smaller roles.
Arabella (1933) came about because Strauss wanted to compose ‘another Rosenkavalier’ and Hofmannsthal came up with a story set in nineteenth-century Vienna, this time about the efforts of an impoverished aristocratic family to arrange a suitable marriage for their daughter Arabella.
To me, the most interesting character is not Arabella herself, but her younger sister Zdenka, who is forced to dress up as a boy (‘Zdenko’) because the family is hard pressed to provide a dowry even for one daughter, much less two.
Zdenka plays the role of Zdenko with verve, but nearly provokes a duel when she pretends to be Arabella and makes love to one of her suitors in a pitch black hotel room. To clear up the resulting misunderstandings, Zdenka outs herself as a girl and threatens to drown herself in the Danube, but that turns out not to be necessary, as she and Arabella both get the partners they wanted all along.
Hugo von Hofmannsthal died in July 1929, leaving Arabella not quite finished. Strauss needed nearly four more years to complete the score, and the premiere finally took place on July 1, 1933, in Dresden.
I have seen Arabella several times in two different productions, both in Frankfurt. I don’t remember much about Peter Mussbach’s staging in the 1990s, but Christoph Loy’s in 2009 was brilliant and even made the story seem plausible. Zdenka was sung in the premiere series by Britta Stallmeister, and in some of the revival performances by Brenda Rae, so the role was in good hands every time.
Die schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman, 1935) is seldom performed, but is notable because the text is by a prominent Austrian author, Stefan Zweig, whose name the ruling Nazis didn’t want to have listed on the posters and cast lists because he was Jewish. Strauss managed to get Zweig’s name listed anyway, but the opera was banned after only three performances. This was Strauss’s only timid act of rebellion against the Nazis, after which he retreated into the silence of the ‘inner emigration’. Zweig in the meantime had really emigrated, and was living in London before moving on to the USA and Brazil. He committed suicide in Brazil in 1942.
Friedenstag (Peace Day, 1938) is also seldom performed. The text was by Joseph Gregor, who was recommended to Strauss by Stefan Zweig.
Daphne (1938), again with a text by Joseph Gregor, is about an ancient Greek nymph who grows roots and turns herself into a tree to avoid being raped by the god Apollo. I have seen it several times in the excellent 2010 Frankfurt staging by Claus Guth, with revivals in 2011, 2014, 2019 and 2023.
Capriccio (1942) is a ‘conversation piece’ set in France in 1775. It is remembered particularly for the circumstances of its world premiere in Munich on October 28, 1942. The city was completely dark because of air-raid warnings, and the spectators had to find their way into the opera house using special flashlights that emitted only a thin line of dark blue light. (Described on page 38 of the Frankfurt program booklet.)
Stage director Brigitte Fassbaender, in her 2018 staging in Frankfurt, moved the story to the 1940s when France was under German occupation. After more than two hours of polite conversation, the countess says goodbye to her guests, puts on a trench coat and goes out to perform an espionage mission for the Résistance.
As in all the other Strauss premieres in Frankfurt from 2008 to 2023, the Capriccio premiere was conducted by Frankfurt’s General Music Director Sebastian Weigle, a Strauss specialist who contributed decisively to the success of these performances.
Die Liebe der Danae (The Love of Danae, 1952) was composed mainly from 1938 to 1940, but was not officially performed until the summer of 1952, when it premiered at the Salzburg Festival in Austria.