MUNICH — "If it must be Richard," a clever if unfriendly critic once wagged, "give me Wagner."
"And if it must be Strauss," he added, "make it Johann."
Conventional wisdom, only a decade or two ago, insisted that Richard Strauss managed to write a couple of terrific little shockers near the turn of the century--"Salome" and "Elektra"--and then peaked with the mock-Viennese nostalgia of "Der Rosenkavalier." He supposedly spent the rest of his tired, plodding, stubbornly sentimental years trying in vain to repeat past glories.
That wisdom wasn't universally shared. In Santa Fe, N. M., of all places, John Crosby launched a brave one-man crusade on behalf of the lesser-known Strauss operas, staging one each year in the desert mirage. Most major houses eventually picked an occasional rarity out of the Strauss oeuvre like a raisin from a rice pudding. The real mecca for the dauntless, unrepentant Straussian, however, has long been the composer's home town, Munich.
Ironically, the Bavarian capital didn't welcome its most famous musical son with open arms and doting devotion at the outset. In 1895, Munich scorned Strauss' first opera--a hyper-respectful flight of super-Wagnerian fantasy called "Guntram." Never one to forget a grudge, Strauss baldly ridiculed the aesthetic myopia of the city six years later when he created his next opera, "Feuersnot."
FOR THE RECORD - Imperfections
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 7, 1988 Home Edition Calendar Page 91 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Whatever his achievements, Richard Strauss did not overturn the laws of math, as suggested in a caption with "The Compleat Operas of Richard Strauss," July 31. The composer was described as being 24 in 1888 and, in error, 85 in 1947. He was 83. Thanks to alert reader and numbers wiz George Foltz of Carson.
Revenge presumably was sweet. It would have been even sweeter if either "Guntram" or "Feuersnot" had eventually flourished as staples of the repertory. But that never happened. ("Feuersnot," it should be noted, was introduced at Santa Fe last week, sharing a strenuous double bill with the even more daunting, equally obscure "Friedenstag" of 1938.)
Despite sweeping revisions and a fleeting Weimar revival in 1940, "Guntram" has remained essentially a curiosity for historians. "Feuersnot" has turned up in sporadic revivals in Munich, thanks to a dedicated, ever-changing team of local champions.
Few of those champions have pretended that the early opera is a bona fide masterpiece. But many have appreciated its echt -Bavarian character, its bold charm, its satiric point, its strokes of dramatic bravura and, most important, its eloquent, even ecstatic, love music.
Even in 1901, Strauss was Strauss. For all its inequities, "Feuersnot" offers compelling previews of glorious coming attractions.
While much of the world wept crocodile tears over the premature decline of Strauss' muse, Munich began quietly to make amends for its initial lack of hospitality. Under the enlightened leadership of such musical and dramatic authorities as Clemens Krauss, Rudolf Hartmann, Hans Knappertsbusch, Karl Bohm, Joseph Keilberth, Gunther Rennert and, now, Wolfgang Sawallisch, the Bavarian State Opera has repeatedly demonstrated the vitality and pathos of the late-Strauss output.
The Muncheners found refinement and poetry, subtlety and elegance, where others had found only bombast and repetition. Iconoclasts, even here, could claim that the level of Strauss' inspiration varied from work to work, often even from page to page. Nevertheless, the high points almost always seemed high enough to compensate for any lapses and longueurs.
Munich actually staged its first opera festival in 1875, a year before the rival Festspielhaus opened in Bayreuth. Strauss did not become officially festive here, however, until 1921, when "Ariadne auf Naxos" joined the special summer repertory. Since then, he has become to this city what Wagner is to nearby Bayreuth and what Mozart is to nearby Salzburg.
These days, the opera in general and Strauss in particular serve as magnetic attractions in a city that used to draw pilgrims primarily to its Oktoberfest.
As Munich has become more and more a cultural mecca, "Die Schweigsame Frau" at the noble 2,000-seat National Theater or "Capriccio" at the exquisite 350-seat Cuvillies Theater vies for attention with wonderful museums, monuments and towers, with the ubiquitous allure of great beer and good food, even with the diverting vision of naked sunbathers dotting the downtown banks of the Isar. Some casual nudity, incidentally, embellishes the bacchanal in Strauss' "Die Agyptische Helena." Only the large contingent of Americans in the audience seems to notice.
Normally, the Munich Festival offers fancy, high-priced performances of Mozart and Wagner in addition to selected Strauss. Sometimes Verdi and Orff (a lesser native son) also enrich the eclectic repertory. This year, the Staaatsoperndirektor decided to present, in one fell, unprecedented swoop, all 15 of Strauss' operas, with John Neumeier's tawdry staging of the maudlin "Josephs Legende" ballet thrown in for bad measure.