Friedenstag by Richard Strauss in Kaiserslautern

Friedenstag by Richard Strauss is a rarity. Why? The music is attractive and dramatic, in a Wagnerian mode, even if at times a little too obvious, as when it seeks to communicate militaristic ideals. The final chorus is, indeed, highly impressive and in what other Strauss operas do we find interesting choral writing? Of course, it is understandable that there should have been resistance to staging a work was which was first performed in 1938, and was by the foremost German composer, happy to remain in the Vaterland and apparently tolerate the Nazis who saw nothing in it to concern them; indeed, they positively approved  of  the central theme of peace with military honour. And the source of inspiration for the libretto, Stefan Zweig, was not allowed to be mentioned because he was Jewish. But things were not, and are not, so simple.

The position of Strauss in Germany was ambiguous because of his attempt to protect Jewish musicians and because of his manifest distaste for certain aspects of Nazi ideology. It is certainly possible to interpret Friedenstag as a defiant statement of pacifist values, disguised within a context of military discipline and strength, in order to enable the piece to see the light of day. And when war did break out, the work was predictably banned. So there is every reason to support its survival and revival, especially when it is performed with such passion and clarity of purpose as in the recent production in Kaiserslautern. Director Kerstin Maria Pöhler and her designer Hebert Murauer decided not to set it in the period of the Thirty Years War, nor – which might have been an easy option – to that of the Third Reich, but rather to give it no specific time reference, and thereby to turn it into a condemnation of militarism and war generally.

Soldiers are a nasty lot whatever their cause, and images of their savagery and bestiality were not avoided. Ordinary people are helpless when faced with such behaviour. The ending of the work might seem to be idealistic and optimistic as peace is concluded between the warring forces, but in Pöhler’s interpretation it is fragile: those addicted to violence remain aloof, while those jubilant as hostilities are terminated come forward one by one to dispose of their white armbands – to the strains of Strauss’s Metamorphosen, performed as a postlude.Dominant in a first-rate cast were theCommandant of Karsten Mewes and his wife, sung with some inaccuracy but great passion by Maria Lobanova. Altogether, a powerful evening of music theatre.