Any sighting of the big and complicated Die Frau ohne Schatten at an opera house is an event. Strauss’s score is one of his most varied and exciting and unique (it’s not violent like Salome or Elektra, but nor is it hyper-romantic like Rosenkavalier or Arabella). The libretto is, shall we say, obscure, mixing spirits and mortals, symbols and talismans like a Zauberflöte without the proverbs, and even less logic. Where Die Frau ohne Schatten excels is majesty. This musically distinguished and beautifully designed Met revival captures that magic, and is definitely one of the must-sees of the fall season.
Strauss, Die Frau ohne Schatten. Met Opera, 11/12/13. Production by Herbert Wernicke, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski with Anne Schwanewilms (Empress), Ildikó Komlósi (Nurse), Christine Goerge (Dyer’s Wife), Johan Reuter (Barak), Torsten Kerl (Emperor), Richard Paul Fink (Messenger), Jennifer Check (Falcon).
Before this performance, I read Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s novella version of the story. It’s a beautifully written story and clears up some of the more immediate confusions of the libretto. But on the larger issues I can’t say I’m that much more enlightened. (It’s only available in German, unfortunately.) The story is about a spirit brought into the world of humans by marriage to the Emperor–thus she is made the Empress. To remain in the human world, she needs to acquire a shadow (also meaning become pregnant). Her Nurse decides to manipulate a poor dyer’s wife out of her shadow and thus fertility. This does not go too well.
The clearest message that can be extracted from the libretto—that the Empress and Dyer’s Wife need to stop thinking so much about themselves all the time and realize their essential function as baby-making factories—is, um, not my favorite conclusion in all of opera. (It, as well as the novella’s obsession with food, probably have something to do with the time of the opera’s composition right after World War I, though it was begun before that.) While the music seems to make it all make glittering sense, productions of Frau have struggled to find a visual realization for the spectacular and causally confusing events, e.g. the earthquake at the end of Act 2, the Fountain of Life, and even the titular shadow. The last production I saw, Christoph Loy’s in Salzburg, threw in the towel entirely and put the whole thing in a recording studio (weak sauce).
On that front, Herbert Wernicke’s Met production is a great success, and actually lives up to the music’s energy and atmosphere. First performed in 2001, it’s being revived for the
first second time and first since 2003. Wernicke died at a tragically young age in 2002, and the direction here is credited to J. Knighten Smit. The design—all by Wernicke—is the primary attraction. The world of the Empress, Emperor, and Nurse is a mirrored box, whose transformations are seen in various dramatic flickering lighting effects. In contrast to this glamour, the Dyer’s house is in a gritty sewer or subway, located below the box and connected by a fire escape staircase (one of the best uses of the Met’s scenic elevator I’ve seen). The upper level is timeless and mythic, the lower contemporary and realistic (Act 1 ends with the dyer Barak poignantly staring into an open refrigerator). The implication is vaguely Marxist: the Empress (surrounded by narcissistic mirrors) is exploiting the literal underclass, for whom she gradually learns compassion. The finale is Brechtian–or lieto fine-ian—with the lighting scaffold descending to reveal the stage mechanism and the singers addressing the audience directly. Since the music does not follow suit in any way, I found this gesture a little ineffective, but overall this is a very strong and convincing production.
The larger problem was the distinct lack of direction of the singers. The images are strong enough that I trust Wernicke’s vision remained at least partially intact, but it would have been a lot more engaging and stronger with less park and bark. The singers seemed left to their own devices, with varying and dissonant results. Anne Schwanewilms was a blank, impassive Empress, intentionally so, and her slim, cutting soprano also sounds otherworldly. It’s a very German sort of sound, somewhat squeezed and instrumental. The highest notes were difficult for her, and her enunciation of the words was not very clear, particularly for a native speaker. Overall, I found her performance of this role in Salzburg a few years ago more satisfying.
In contrast, Christine Goerke’s Dyer’s Wife was earthy and personable. This has been a major career breakthrough for her, with the kind of singing where we ask where she has been for the last five years (the answer does not involve an Incongruous Former Profession like morning radio host or roller skate saleswoman, she’s been singing in Europe, plus the Foreign Princess at the Met a few years ago). Her voice has an all-encompassing size and dark, rich color, best in the middle and bottom. She can blast out the high notes, too, as in the end of Act 2, which was great. Her Dyer’s Wife is a shy, unsatisfied housewife–a drastically different interpretation from the high octane Evelyn Herlitzius in Salzburg. I must admit I found Herlitzius’s edgy, intense singing more viscerally exciting, but Goerke is sure a whole lot more accurate and reliable, as well as more likable. (They are a textbook example of Ethan Mordden’s typology of the “Stimmdiva”–Goerke–versus the “Kunstdiva”–Herlitzius.)
The other singers were less notable, though all were pretty good. Ildikó Komlósi sounded worn and shrill as the Nurse, but this role is not exactly a walk in the park. Torsten Kerl coped with the high-lying role of the Emperor capably and reasonably musically (he repeatedly gets the opera’s One Big Tune, representing his and the Empress’s first encounter and the choice of the postshow subway sax/flute player), but did nothing resembling acting and his voice sounds a little on the small side. Johan Reuter made a very human Barak, but also a very lyrical one, and was not ideally audible. Richard Paul Fink as the Spirit Messenger was rather better on the volume front, and countertenor (!) Andrey Nemzer was alarmingly loud as the other messenger. The Young Man and the Falcon were both amplified, and sounded quite artificial.
Of course the orchestra is one of the main stars of any Frau, so I’m sorry to have arrived here last. Vladimir Jurowski conducted a beautifully delineated, controlled, very vertical account of the score. I heard lots of details and the singers were only occasionally drowned out. He is restrained, saving the full Straussian power for a few big moments. I kind of wish he were less parsimonious? It was a very beautiful and elegant reading, but Strauss is not a composer who thrives on frugality, and I would have appreciated a bit more sonic extravagance. (Caveat: I was in the damn rear orchestra again, where acoustics are bad. If i didn’t have so much work, I’d go again and sit in the Family Circle.) I also missed the momentum of Christian Thielemann’s Salzburg rendition, which I preferred by a small margin.
But this is nonetheless a musically distinguished and scenically remarkable production; go see it.
Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met.