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Richard Strauss and His Heroines

spacer A film by Thomas von Steinaecker, narrated by Henrik Wöhler, with comments by Brigitte Fassbaender, Renée Fleming, Christa Ludwig, Gwyneth Jones, Christian Strauss, Rufus Wainwright and others. Arthaus Musik 102 181, 52 mins. (documentary) & 23 mins. (bonus), subtitled


Thomas von Steinaecker's short film attempts to establish a correlation between Richard Strauss's female creations for the stage and the women in his life, principally his notoriously spiky wife, Pauline, and his far more sympathetic daughter-in-law, Alice. Along the way, we are given a brief examination of several of his heroines — Salome, Elektra, the Marschallin, the Dyer's Wife and Danae — through scripted narration, an overview supplied by dramaturge Christoph Wagner-Trenkwitz and comments by women who have sung Strauss's works. This also gives Arthaus an opportunity to showcase clips of the label's Strauss releases in order to provide examples.

The role of women during Strauss's time is covered in sound bites by Professor Barbara Vinken, who examines trends in feminism in the first half of the twenthieth century. The composer's early heroines, Salome and Elektra, rejected the norm of motherhood and familial devotion at the turn of the century. But after World War I, as women gained independence, Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal seemed to regress, the Dyer's Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten embracing those older values. At the same time, Strauss had married soprano Pauline de Ahna and, despite Pauline's domineering nature, felt that she was what he needed. Fifty-five years of marital fidelity and domesticity in their mountain villa are contrasted with Strauss's shifting fortunes during both wars, and with the Nazis' treatment of him, which alternated between reverence and dismissal. His naïveté about the Nazis led him to go to Teresienstadt to try to see the grandmother of his Jewish daughter-in-law, Alice, and to think he could continue writing operas with librettist Stefan Zweig, who was Jewish. Grandson Christian Strauss adds a personal touch; filmed at the villa in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, surrounded by the composer's own clutter of collected objects, he tells anecdotes about his grandfather, including one in which Strauss saved his home from American occupation after the war by announcing that he was the composer of Der Rosenkavalier to an officer who happened to be an opera-lover.

The film becomes more a biography of Strauss, sometimes losing the thread of its titled theme; Intermezzo, his autobiographical opera about marriage and Pauline, for which he wrote libretto as well as music, is barely mentioned and not shown in performance.

On-topic comments from Christa Ludwig and Gwyneth Jones add star luster — although it is not their amazing performances we see. The same is true of Brigitte Fassbaender, but at least she is featured a bit more prominently, coaching Strauss's music as well as talking about it. One wishes there were more of this in the film. Fassbaender's understanding of vocal technique, textual accent and how to achieve it is gratifying to watch. 

Strauss's devotion to the female voice, for which he wrote so magnificently, was bookended in a way by the four songs he wrote in 1894 as a wedding gift for Pauline (including the ravishing "Morgen") and his Four Last Songs in 1949, the year of his death. The film ends with Renée Fleming making that point verbally, and then vocally, with an excerpt from his final song, "Im abendrot." Two bonus tracks feature film of Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic performing Till Eulenspiegel magnificently, along with a clip from the 1949 Strauss documentary tribute Ein Leben für die Musikspacer 


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