It was the legendary record producer Walter Legge, husband of the great Straussian soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who referred to Richard Strauss as “Romanticism’s great coda”. Having enjoyed a long and productive composing life, Strauss died at the age of 85 in 1949. Alongside his celebrated series of orchestral tone poems, Strauss was a noted composer for the voice, writing a great catalogue of lieder and many operas. In fact, I would not be going to far to suggest that he, bar Mozart, was probably the greatest composer for the female voice, particularly the soprano register. So State Opera of South Australia Artistic Director Stuart Maunder’s idea to present a gala which celebrated this was a truly excellent idea, bringing on board not only Australia’s best late Romantic conductor, Simone Young, but four of the probable best voices for this repertoire – sopranos Miriam Gordon-Stewart, Emma Matthews and Lisa Gasteen, and mezzo Catherine Carby.
The capacity audience were not only treated to the finest and more tonal selections from the composer’s operas and orchestral settings of the more familiar lieder – Young also chose a truly excellent selection of orchestral interludes and overtures from often lesser-heard stage works. These included not only the exhilarating modal marvel that is Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils, but the highly evocative dream-like Mondscheinmusik from Strauss’ last opera and testament, the under-appreciated yet intimate battle between music and words that is Capriccio, and a couple of interludes from the ‘soap opera’, an intimate look into Strauss’ personal life, Intermezzo. Young led impeccable performances throughout and the orchestra responded in kind with its silky, seamless strings. Praise must go to the impeccably neat horn players Adrian Uren and Sarah Barrett, splitting the program between them. Similarly, the always dependable Natsuko Yoshimoto presented a gorgeous dream-like obbligato, winding around Matthews’ silvery voice in Morgen. Incidentally you can always measure the success of this popular lied by the length of pause before the inevitable applause and the audible sighing which accompanies the pause. And yes, Miss Matthews’ performance had the desired effect.
The dramatic soprano Lisa Gasteen was welcomed to the stage with a love only too apparent. Long locally cherished for her Brünnhilde and her closing scene from Salome, Gasteen delivered a touching performance of several lieder, including memorable takes on Cäcilie and Zueignung. Matthews and Gordon-Stewart were well-balanced in the rarer Arabella duet, whilst Carby and Gordon-Stewart excelled in excerpts from Ariadne auf Naxos. Carby was a new voice for me but her performances thrilled, alone and in duet. For the ‘home run’ they were joined by Matthews for two extracts from the much-loved Der Rosenkavalier, culminating with the desired ethereal effect in the closing Trio, Hab’ mir’s gelobt, the finest that I’ve heard it this side of the Pacific (I consider myself blessed to have heard Renée Fleming and Elīna Garanča at the Met a couple of years ago.)
All in all, here was one of those all-too-rare opportunities where both artistically and technically, this was a flawless performance. The dependable Adelaide Symphony Orchestra provided appropriate and seemingly effortless support to these fine singers and then went on to deliver atmospheric takes on the instrumental selections. The selection of vocalists and materials were enough to make any interstater jealous. And the only thing that one could quibble over could be a personal favourite not being presented.