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A Frau Without a Production Concept?

Salzburger Festspiele
07/29/2011 -  & August 1, 4, 11, 14, 17, 21*, 2011
Richard Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten
Stephen Gould (The Emperor), Anne Schwanewilms (the Empress), Michaela Schuster (the Nurse), Wolfgang Koch (Barak, the Dyer), Evelyn Herlitzius (the Dyer’s Wife), Markus Brück (the One-Eyed Man), Steven Humes (the One-Armed Man), Andreas Conrad (the Hunchback), Thomas Johannes Mayer (the Spirit Messenger), Rachel Frenkel (Voice of the Falcon), Peter Sonn (Vision of a Young Man), Christina Landshamer (temple guard/first servant), Maria Radner (celestial voice), Lenneke Ruiten (second servant), Martina Mikelic (third servant)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Vienna State Opera Chorus, and Salzburg Festival Children’s Chorus, Christian Thielemann (conductor)
Christof Loy (director), Johannes Leiacker (set designer), Ursula Renzenbrink (costume designer), Stefan Bolliger (lighting designer), Thomas Wilhelm (choreographer)

E. Herlitzius (© Monika Ritterhaus)

The Salzburg Festival’s first new production this year boldly takes on what avid Strauss fans regard as the composer’s greatest work. Die Frau ohne Schatten, a fairy tale adapted from sources as varied as Norse mythology, The Arabian Nights, and Goethe, addresses marital love by dwelling heavily on guilt, manipulation, jealousy, anger, and, happily but not always present in real life, reconciliation. The Emperor of the mythical realm of the South Seas has taken as his Empress the divine daughter of the god Keikobad. She is barren, a condition illustrated by her inability to cast a shadow. A messenger from Keikobad announces that if she casts no shadow soon, Keikobad will reclaim her and turn the Emperor to stone. The Empress’s nurse schemes to acquire the shadow (and thus the child bearing ability) of a mortal woman, the downtrodden wife of the poor dyer Barak, offering her in exchange a life of riches and pleasure. The dyer’s unnamed wife, who is of little interest to her abusive husband, agrees and nearly betrays him with a more appealing man presented by the nurse. When the dyer’s wife deceitfully tells Barak that she has succumbed to temptation, his righteous fury convinces her that he loves her after all. She then confesses that she really had been faithful, placing their relationship on a high new plane of honest passion finally brought into the open. Observing the deep psychology at work, the Empress decides that her place is among humanity and renounces the shadow the nurse has acquired for her. The opera ends happily, with both couples rejoicing in the ecstasy of marital bliss and with both women casting shadows.

Christof Loy has dispensed with the fairy tale elements to reimagine the action unfolding during a 1950s-era commercial studio recording session of the opera itself. Johannes Leiacker’s only set for the entire performance is recognizably Vienna’s Sofiensaal, a concert venue that served as the chief recording studio of Decca records until the hall was destroyed by fire in 2001 (according to 2006 report the premises are to be redeveloped as condos). The characters appear as first-rate Straussian singers charged with performing the opera’s roles for the recording. The recreated Sofiensaal is dominated by an elevated stage with recording equipment that silent technicians, including a young John Culshaw-like character, frequently adjust to add the sense of depth and reality that earlier recordings lacked.

This could easily be taken as simply a bad approach or a jaded lack of imagination. Studio recording inherently suggests dramatic stasis – the singers are merely there to do a job managed by others. The prospect of attending a performance staged in this manner sounds like going to concert opera or, worse, merely observing professionals in the doldrums of their work. There threatens to be no room for the raw emotions or deep psychology of Strauss’s immense characters. In their vintage 1950s street clothes, the singers could have walked off the set of Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. Yet Loy subtly manages to address the opera’s themes and make its drama resonate. In the course of the evening all of the principals come to inhabit the roles with their own complexes and neuroses while ostensibly just performing the music. The effect is not unlike Pagliacci’s murderous play-within-the-opera or the psychologically revealing opera act set within the confines of a drama in Strauss’s earlier work Ariadne auf Naxos. Indeed, the emotions and antagonisms quickly become apparent despite the setting. The baritone and soprano performing the roles of Barak and his wife are presented as a married couple who also seem to be plagued by childlessness. Their unhappy relationship suggests the failed marriage of Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry, much of which coincided with their memorable performances in those roles (often together) two generations ago. Barak’s costume is distinguished by the square, heavy rimmed glasses and combed back hair remembered from Berry’s publicity photographs. The two singers’ interaction closely mimics the opera’s plot. When Barak is indifferent to his wife, the baritone is indifferent to the soprano. When Barak is meant to go off and get drunk, the baritone leaves the studio and returns overserved and undersupervised. The gut wrenching scene over the wife’s pretended infidelity in the opera screams out real marital problems in the lives of the singers. When the couple reconcile at the end, it is as much the reconciliation of a mid-twentieth artistic couple as of the mythical characters whose music they are singing. The hidden analogies emerge in a more rarefied version of the troubled Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor marriage(s) on display in their synergetic joint films, whether they were Antony and Cleopatra or Edward Albee’s professor and housewife. The Empress, or rather the soprano portraying her, is described as a young singer -- easily Leonie Rysanek, who first performed the role at age 29. Loy’s reinterpretation of the plot suggests that her struggle to relate to her colleagues’ adoption of their characters mirrors the Empress’s descent from the pedestal of divinity to real empathy for mortals. It is less clear who the Emperor is (“a tenor performing in Europe for the first time,” as the program notes tell us - perhaps James King), and the character spends much of the time nervously observing and reacting to the others. This substitutes in a way for the Emperor’s less vivid character in the opera. The older mezzo singing the nurse is every bit as nasty and manipulative as the character she portrays. The opera’s final scene – the set’s only alteration throughout the evening – is staged as a somewhat dopey Christmas concert for children, but the milieu does allow the two couples to luxuriate in bliss while the nurse is reduced to the petty schoolmarm people as manipulative as she usually are at heart. Loy suggests that since the archetypes and psychoses of mythology are ultimately projections of human feelings and frail mortal needs, humans can experience and explore these imperatives as easily as imagined gods and heroes. Reality, in other words, substitutes for myth in a provocative inversion of the conventional understanding – so important to Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal while surviving the hideous World War I era – that myth is necessary to escape reality.

The production might have suffered under the weight of its abstraction had the musical effort been less outstanding. The clear star of the evening was the Vienna Philharmonic under Christian Thielemann, who will soon take over Dresden’s Staatskapelle Orchestra. Taking an appealingly slower tempo than Karl Böhm’s memorable recordings, Thielemann drew a plush, ravishing sound that soared up and swept us into a transcendent realm of delight. Anne Schwanewilms sang a splendidly vulnerable Empress, especially in the role’s gorgeous middle register. Evelyn Herlitzius surpassed her with stratospheric ascents that captured all the existential angst and emotional confusion of the Dyer’s Wife. In the role of the Emperor, Stephen Gould resonated with a strong, clarion tone that has made him a rising Heldentenor. Wolfgang Koch’s Barak was rather more subdued than it should have been, but still emerged with confidence and nobility. Michaela Schuster’s smoky lower register imparted real malevolence as both the Empress’s nurse and the seasoned but mean mezzo-soprano this production has singing the role. The excellent baritone Thomas Johannes Mayer, who sings Wotan internationally, was a welcome addition as the spirit messenger of Keikobad.

Paul du Quenoy



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