Torsten Kerl as the Emperor and Anne Schwanewilms as the Empress in Richard Strauss's "Die Frau ohne Schatten."
(Photo : Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
The Metropolitan Opera will not be presenting a single opera by Richard Wagner throughout the 2013-14 season. Surprisingly, the other great German Richard, Richard Strauss that is, is getting some representation throughout the season with such operas as "Der Rosenkavalier," "Arabella," and "Die Frau ohne Schatten." While none of these are surefire replacements for the philosophical hysteria of the King of Bayreuth, the latest opera listed above by Strauss presents an interesting case as it binds some of the mythmaking of Wagner with music of equal, and sometimes greater, potency.
"Frau" is not a particularly popular work thanks in part to the lack of singers available to perform it as well as the troubling nature of its text. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Strauss' great librettist, concocts a story set in some mythical empire in the East. The mysterious God Kiekobad has given his daughter, the Empress, three days to find a shadow or else her husband, the Emperor, will turn into stone. Guided by her Mephistophelean nurse, the Empress descends into the world of humans where she encounters a Dyer Barak and his unloving wife. The wife does not want children and becomes the perfect target for the nurse; the shadow in this opera represents fertility.
That is how Strauss and Hofmannsthal's work gets started and throughout the work the viewer will encounter a fountain of life, a falcon, spirits and a number of other symbolic gestures that take a great deal of time and patience to decipher.
The Met has revived Herbert Wernicke's elaborate production for the first time since its premiere in 2001. To say that Wernicke's work is astounding is a huge understatement. The production is made up of two sets - the first a massive cube made up of mirrors on the floor and two sides. The lighting manages to create a tremendous sense of ambience and the screen and curtains that appear upstage manage to create diverse patterns in the cube. Like the work itself, it is hard to decipher what everything actually means but the experience is unforgettable and endlessly surprising. Near the end of Act 2, the cube lights up with stars that almost make it feel like the sky has materialized in the theater. Near the end, there is a crystallized feeling to the entire location that is icy and frigid in its feeling. At other times it becomes strikingly red. Words really are quite useless in expressing the magic that this contraption manages to achieve for the audience.
The other set rises and descends throughout and represents the Dyer's home. The set has a central staircase that becomes a major connector between the two realms. The remainder of the set is a massive grimy factory home that would not look out of place as Mime's hut at the beginning of some productions of "Siegfried." The detail throughout the space is quite remarkable as there is an elaborate kitchen setup on stage right with a refrigerator. On the opposite end is a bed with some tools for dying. Even if this set is elaborate, Wernicke's design manages to connect beautifully with that of the other set and even provides some insight. During one scene early in the first act, the Dyer and his wife are in the midst of an argument over their future. He wants children, she doesn't.
Throughout this scene she remains in his kitchen area while he remains on the opposite end of the stage; their broken relationship could not be more aptly staged. At one point, the wife walks over to the refrigerator and looks just above it at a bird cage; this moment says everything you need to know about her emotions and Wernicke's expression of marriage. This bird cage reminds the viewer instantly of the massive mirror cube set with its lives separating the pieces of glass throughout. The animal as captive reference is not a coincidental one either as Hofmannsthal and Strauss make constant reference to the cage-like existence of the characters. The Empress had shape-shifting abilities prior to being caught as a gazelle by the Emperor and his falcon; after that she took on the form of a human and has remained in that body since. During his opening scene, the Emperor claims that the Empress is "the prize of all prizes" from his hunting trips. The Wife of the Dyer becomes easily tempted by the prospect of getting servants and a new lover to rid her of her "slave-like" existence. All of the scenes take place in both of these sets with the lighting adding the biggest alterations to the setting and mood; despite these visual marvels, the viewer cannot help but feel the imprisoned sense of the characters.
This all changes in a rather surprising and unique coup de theatre at the end of the work. Once the Empress has refused to steal the shadow and sacrifices her love, the two couples are reconciled. The mirror cube moves away and the four are left on a black stage; a bunch of ceiling lights descend and the actual theater lights go on. At this moment the characters have transcended their imprisoned state onstage and engage the viewer in their moment of happiness. They are no longer actors locked up in characters on stage but one of us, free and full of life.
The performers on the opening night were all splendid in their own right. In the title role was debutante Anne Schwanewilms. From her opening monologue with its florid passagework to her final monologue in which she stops singing and speaks, Schwanewilms was a dominating presence on stage. Her voice is a massive one that showcased tremendous flexibility with Strauss' coloratura passagework and monstrous leaps into the soprano stratosphere. She had a rather graceful approach to her opening scene that hinted at the happiness of the Empress in her current state; one could not feel that the character expressed a bit of naivety. The Empress has a big vocal break throughout Act 1 and most of Act 2, but Schwanewilms was still a powerful presence even when she was silent. She explored the Dyer's house with tremendous curiosity that made it impossible to look away. Her concern for the broken marriage was visible on her face throughout most of Act 2. When she took over at the end of the act to sing her powerful monologue, her powerful sound rang through the theater gloriously. The third act belongs to the Empress as she sings non-stop and then has to deliver speech over Strauss' cataclysmic orchestra. She delivered chillingly in these moments, the pain present in every utterance. There was no doubt that hers was a truly triumphant night.
Christine Goerke was also a victor as the hateful wife. The character's behavior toward her husband is so reprehensible that it is easy for this character to fall into caricature. The great artist will find a way to make her contempt credible and connect with the viewer in some manner. Goerke is a great artist and completed this task admirably. As noted earlier, her subtle look toward the birdcage said everything to the viewer about the situation. That Wernicke manages to surround the character with a rather deplorable environment only adds to the identification with the character. Goerke's voice has a titanic sound that emphasizes the character's domineering personality. However, the start of Act 3 saw a sweeter tone set in that while expressing the weakening nature of the character, also added a delicacy to the Wife that was absent earlier in the portrayal. The evolution from the hard-nosed "witch (as Goerke calls her)" to the regretful woman was expressed throughout this passage to powerful effect.
Johan Reuter was terrific as Barak the Dyer. His voice had a rugged quality that fit well with the character and his life-style, but there was also a refreshing gentleness to it during the passages in which he tries to console his wife. During the scene in which she rejects a bunch of beggars that he has brought home to feed he responds that her anger is "heavenly;" his voice had silkiness in the phrasing that showcased not the hard-worker, but the idealist lover.
Torsten Kerl had a more difficult night than the others despite also delivering a solid performance. His tenor is sturdy and brilliant but he lacked the volume and heft to pierce through the tremendous orchestral forces constantly pouring on him. His big monologue scene in the middle of Act 2 was sung with tremendous conviction but the tidal waves of sound from the orchestra had the tendency to cover him at the big climactic moments undoubtedly taking away something from his otherwise potent performance. This was further emphasized during the big quartet when he was constantly drowned out by the other singers.
Ildiko Komlosi was terrific as the otherwise hateful Nurse. She had a tremendous amount of sarcasm and venom in her deliveries but also brought a sense of desperation in her final scene; she shone in this particular scene as she knelt to beg the Empress to remain with her. While it was difficult to truly identify with the character Komlosi's performance expressed the fact that this character was not a hating devil, but a character with love for the Empress and her world.
Richard Paul Fink's massive voice was ominous and authoritative throughout his appearances as the Messenger.
Vladimir Jurowski was serenaded with "Bravos" and applause every single time he stepped on the podium and rightfully so. His account of the music was full of vigor and passionate sweep. While he did cover his singers at times, he managed to strike a terrific balance in crucial moments, including the final spoken monologue by the Empress. This scene was easily the most impressive work of Jurowski's night as he let the full fury of Strauss' music dominate the stage without ever cutting out the powerful delivery by Schwanewilms. Also worthy of note was the violin soloist David Chan and cellist Jerry Grossman. Both had ample opportunities to shine and managed to create exquisite music in every single such instance.
"Die Frau ohne Schatten" is tough on a textual level in that not every symbol or idea will be grasped with facility. However, Strauss' sweeping lyricism as portrayed by Jurowski and the terrific cast coupled with Wernicke's stellar production make attending this opera arguably one of the must-see events of the Metropolitan Opera's 2013-14 season.