13 June 2014 at 2.02pm | Comment on this article
No one could write for the soprano voice like Richard Strauss. From the songs he wrote for his wife, soprano Pauline de Ahna, through to the exquisite Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs), Strauss's soprano music is technically challenging for the singer but offers endless delights for the listener. Here's a guide to some of our favourite soprano roles from his operas.
Elektra (Elektra, 1909)
Elektra is one of the most challenging parts ever written for dramatic soprano. The role requires a huge vocal range, with eight high B flats and four high Cs and also some very low-lying passages. The singer needs to be able to project above a vast orchestra: her great monologue in Scene 2 (‘Allein! Weh, ganz allein!’), her dialogue with Klytämnestra and the final scene of the opera require great power. But she also needs tenderness, in the moving recognition scene 'Orest! Orest!' in which Elektra is reunited with her brother.
The other principal female roles in the opera – Elektra’s gentler sister Chrysothemis and her murderous mother Klytämnestra – are equally challenging and rewarding.
The Marschallin (Der Rosenkavalier, 1911)
Strauss realized he’d pushed the female voice to its dramatic limits in Elektra. In his next opera, Der Rosenkavalier, he explored the voice’s lyric potential. His heroine, the Marschallin, is one of the most complex women in opera - humorous, sensual and lively but also pensive and sensitive. Strauss wrote some wonderful music for her, including the great monologue and duet in Act I, ‘Da geht er hin’/‘Ah, du bist wieder da!’ in which the Marschallin remembers her youth, and faces up to the prospect of ageing.
Der Rosenkavalier also features two other great female roles. The innocent Sophie von Faninal is the perfect part for a young soprano with a soaring lyric voice, and the passionate Octavian is a wonderful role for high mezzo-soprano. In the final act, Strauss brings the three singers together in the most exquisite trio for female voices in opera, ‘Hab mir’s gelobt’.
Ariadne and Zerbinetta (Ariadne auf Naxos, 1912, revised 1916)
Strauss’s two soprano roles in Ariadne auf Naxos are vocal and dramatic opposites. The cheerful and extrovert coquette Zerbinetta is a showstopping part for coloratura soprano, with a fiercely difficult showcase aria, ‘Grossmächtige Prinzessin!’ By contrast, Ariadne is a full lyric soprano, like the Marschallin but even more dignified. Strauss wrote Ariadne two beautiful arias expressing her longing for Theseus (‘Ein Schönes war’) and her craving for death (‘Es gibt ein Reich’). He also wrote one of his very few great duets for soprano and tenor for when Ariadne is united with the god Bacchus (‘Gibt es kein Hinüber’). Strauss had been tasked by his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal to write music that depicted Ariadne mysteriously transformed through love.
In the 1919 version of the opera (the one usually performed today) Strauss included a third great female role in the Prologue: the fiery Composer (who, like Octavian, can be sung by mezzo-soprano or soprano) has some thrilling music, particularly the aria ‘Sein wir wieder gut’, in praise of ‘holy art’.
The Empress and Barak's Wife (Die Frau ohne Schatten, 1919)
The role of the Empress in Strauss’s epic ‘fairytale opera’ was written for Maria Jeritza, the first Ariadne. The parts have much of the same melodic beauty, but the Empress poses a greater challenge. The singer is on stage for nearly the whole opera (over three hours) and has to sing several large-scale arias (the first, ‘Ist mein Liebster dahin?’ containing coloratura and an optional high D) – and reserve enough stamina for an intense solo scene in Act III.
Strauss modelled elements of the role of Barak's Wife on his wife Pauline. The part contains intense drama, particularly in the Wife’s arguments with her husband Barak. However, Strauss’s first Wife was Lotte Lehmann, a singer renowned for vocal beauty as well as dramatic acting, and Barak's Wife must sound warm and tender in Act III, particularly in her duet with Barak ‘Mir anvertraut’. In Hofmannsthal's words, Barak's Wife is ‘a bizarre woman with a very beautiful soul’.
Countess Madeleine (Capriccio, 1942)
Countess Madeleine is an elegant, poised but playful aristocrat, similar to the Marschallin. We rarely see her lose her composure. She manages to keep the peace between her two lovers, the poet Olivier and the composer Flamand. She is affectionately teasing towards the grandiose theatre director La Roche and her stagestruck brother, and appropriately respectful to the great actress Clairon. But in her great solo scene ‘Morgen mittags um elf!’, which closes the opera, Strauss gives us an insight into her true feelings. This beautiful ten-minute scene depicts the Countess musing on the beauty of words and music combined in opera, and trying in vain to choose which of two suitors she will accept. Full of glorious melody, it is a moving swansong from Strauss to the operatic stage – and, most of all, the soprano voice he loved so much.
Ariadne auf Naxos runs 25 June–13 July 2014. Tickets are still available.
The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Hélène and Jean Peters, Hamish and Sophie Forsyth and The Maestro’s Circle.