Die Frau mit dem Schatten

18 Mar

The performance of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Royal Opera House on 17th March was among the most glorious musical events that I can recall.  It was one of those evening where, you felt, whatever was going on visually, nothing could go wrong aurally.

We had Semyon Bychkov, always good in Strauss, conducting an outstanding performance by the orchestra: the colours and textures of the piece came across with superb clarity, but he also manages climaxes that filled the theatre and almost persuaded you that this was one of the greatest operatic scores.  He accompanies the cast marvellously – I don’t think I’ve heard so many words in a Strauss opera before – the cast projected them thrillingly and he made sure you could hear them.  The piece flowed gloriously and you could not but admire the stamina and skill of the orchestra.  You felt a physical excitement at the grand moments – the end of the second act was shattering musically and the contemplative, reflective moments were incredibly beautiful.  It felt right and it sounded like great music throughout.

He had an outstanding cast.  Johan Botha has such a glorious heldentenor voice that you tend to ignore a figure that looks more like a banker – accentuated by the Victorian costume here.  He sang fearlessly, intensely and with huge strength. He made the fearsome demands sound beautifully.  Is there a finer heldentenor around today? He was matched by Emily Magee as the Empress – she matches intense power with a beautiful, ethereal quality for the more reflective passage.  Again, for sheer confidence and beauty, I’m not sure who I’d rather hear today.  Why do we hear so little of her in London?

Johan Reuter was Barak  It’s a gem of a role, but he managed his monologues in each act with a simplicity and nobility, together with glorious tone that was deeply moving.  He is a very special singer indeed.  As his wife, Elena Pankratova displayed a powerful voice, well up to the demands of the role – she was, I think, hampered more than most by the production, but she managed her monologue in Act III when she realises her love for Barak with great beauty and, again, involved you in her predicament.  As the Nurse, Michaela Schuster was, again, outstanding.  She appeared to have no problems with the demands of the role and was terrifying at the end of Act II.  The other roles were all well-cast and gave considerable pleasure.

I’ve deliberately left a discussion of Claus Guth’s production until the end.  This wasn’t my first visit to Frau ohne Schatten – I saw the revivals here in 1987 and 2002 but that is, really, my full exposure to the piece; I don’t possess a CD or DVD and recall being thoroughly bored at the 2002 revival to the extent that I left, I think, after Act II (or it might even have been Act I).  I’m not particularly a believer in doing homework before going to the opera (particularly not now that there are surtitles) – you should be able to take a performance on its merits.  So I came to the performance pretty much cold – a recollection of the overall plot but no musical or any other detailed memory.

So, on that basic level, how did I fare with this most complex, allusive opera?  Well, the surtitles helped to an extent.  So did the acting – the singers expressed the emotions with absolute conviction and clarity – their predicaments on a human level were clear and moving – particularly from Magee, Reuter and Schuster.  You could not separate their performances and acting from the music and you identified them as human: Guth must take substantial credit for that.

However, you can’t just get by with the acting in this opera.  Hofmannstahl’s synopsis in the programme, aside from demonstrating the extent of the cuts, tells of fish flying into a pan, of a house collapsing and lots of other visual effects that are quite important for the story.  The libretto itself gives some clues about the staging – conflicts between air and earth, between humans and immortals. They may well be nonsense and, it’s possible that Hofmannstahl’s libretto is a load of vacuous tosh but there is some sort of vision here.  I’ve no problem with directors substituting a convincing vision of their own – and would potentially welcome it in this piece – I just didn’t think that Guth’s helped.

We begin and end in an anonymous room with the Empress asleep in bed (is this her dream then and, if so, how does that help us?).  Gazelles and Falcons dance about the stage (one of whom, I think, is Keikobad.  Oh, and the Empress has one very fine and obvious shadow – was I really missing the point in wanting to get up there, point his out and suggest that everybody could stop worrying and go home?  Isn’t this one, pretty basic thing that a director gets wrong at his peril?

There’s no appreciable change of locale for Barak’s house (isn’t one point of the opera the distinction between Barak and the Emperor) and Barak’s wife and the Empress are dressed identically.  I found the set constricting – this an opera where you need to let your imagination roam and where space matters.  Here you became bored by the unit set, irritated by the video and assailed again and again by two thoughts: (a) I haven’t a clue what is going on here and (b) there must be more to it than this.  Guth explained some of the imagery he was using in the programme.  I don’t think that you should have to pay £7 on top of the seat to have this explained – it should be clear – and, in any case, I wasn’t any the wiser having read them.  It made me think of how else you could do it – how an immortal world based on Klimt and a mortal world based on Schiele might be a starting point.

So this was a staging, that cluttered, constricted and baffled.  It didn’t undermine the fantastic performances of the singers but I felt short-changed.  We see Frau ohne Schatten rarely; it’s a difficult piece and, ultimately, I didn’t get it.  I will, however, get it on CD – Bychkov and the cast convinced me that there’s music here I need to know better.

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