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A welcome revival

New York
Metropolitan Opera House
11/07/2013 -  & November 12, 16, 20*, 23, 26, 2013
Richard Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten, opus 65
Torsten Kerl (Emperor), Anne Schwanewilms (Empress), Christine Goerke (Dyer's Wife), Johan Reuter (Barak), Ildikó Komlósi (the Nurse), Richard Paul Fink (Messenger), Jennifer Check (Falcon), Allan Glassman (Hunchback), Daniel Sutin (One-eyed)
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)
Herbert Wernicke (director, plus set, costume and lighting designer)

(Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera)

Richard Strauss's ethereal opera premiered during a time of immense confusion - the immediate aftermath of World War I, when both his native Germany and the Austria that hosted the premiere lay in defeat and tumult. The work itself captures existential angst at a deeply personal level. The Emperor of a mythical realm taken a god's daughter as his wife but she bears no children; metaphorically, she casts no shadow. Her divine father has condemned the emperor to turn to stone unless she does. Her manipulative nurse proposes to solve the problem by tempting the childless, neglected, and impoverished wife of the dyer Barak to sell her own shadow in return for a life of pleasure. When the outraged husband discovers this, he nearly kills her, prompting the wife to realize that he really does care and reawakening her feelings. The opera ends with both couples celebrating their lives and ability to bear children; self-sacrificial love has removed the curse on the Emperor, cured the Empress, and reunited Barak and his wife.

Herbert Wernicke's production premiered in 2001 under the baton of Christian Thielemann and had another run in 2003 under Philippe Auguin. The production goes a long way toward capturing the difference between the mythical realm of the Emperor and Empress and the earthy existence of Barak and his wife. The imperial realm is a place of light and shadows, all reflected in giant mirrors that surround the stage. Descent to earth brings us into a frowzy early twentieth-century industrial workshop, suggesting the existential angst of the era in which Strauss composed the opera. The whole effect is quite good, apart from a few campy effects like the costumed falcon, which looks like a sick Sesame Street character. In this age of digital effects and sophisticated stage equipment, it was most effecting to see.

This was very much a Frau worth hearing as well. The indisputable star of the evening was the soprano Christine Goerke, who has been building a career steadily for the last two decades and has in the last few years conquered much of the Strauss repertoire. In the role of the Dyer's Wife, her dramatic gestures are limpid and fulfilling, while the voice soars on refined technique. Strauss soprano roles are notoriously difficult for their range, but Goerke avoided the tendency of too many sopranos to rely on sharp ascents or shrill deliveries. Her performance was a stunning work of art.

Anne Schwanewilms debuted at the Met in this revival as the Empress. She also brought a solidity of tone and a splendid dramatic reading. Ildikó Komlósi was a vicious, conniving Nurse, exactly the type one wants to see and hear.

The male parts also had their merits, though Torsten Kerl's Emperor occasionally failed to rise above the orchestra. Baritone Johan Reuter, however, commanded Barak's music with attractive authority. Combined with Goerke, the Act III duet "Mir anvertraut," in which Barak must reconcile his guilt at having nearly taken his wife's life, was the musical highlight of the evening.

Vladimir Jurowski conducted a vigorous performance, but took too much haste to convey many of the great moments.

Paul du Quenoy



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