Monday 31 March 2014

Die Frau Schatten - a second look

Die Frau Ohne Schatten, photo from  Teatro all Scala, Pictures by  Monika Rittershaus
Die Frau Ohne Schatten,
photo from  Teatro all Scala,
Pictures by  Monika Rittershaus
We caught up with Royal Opera's new production of Richard Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten on 29 March 2014. One of the Saturday performances; rather necessary when the opera starts at 6pm. (See Hilary's review of an earlier performance in then run.) I had seen the John Cox/David Hockney production at Covent Garden in 1992 and in 2001, along with Welsh National Opera's last revival of the opera in the 1980's. So I was fascinated to see what director Claus Guth, designer Christian Schmidt, dramaturg Ronny Dietrich and conductor Semyon Bychkov made of this wonderful, complex, fascinating, problematic and long opera.

The curtain goes up on a wood panelled interior, smooth curved walls and a recessed window suggesting a stylised German interior of around 1910.  A woman is in bed, a maid waits by the bed. The woman is the Empress (Emily Magee) and the maid is the Nurse (Michaela Schuster). In the programme book there is an article by Ronny Dietrich that makes it clear that all of the subsequent action can be taken as a dream. In Dietrich's, and presumably Guth's, opinion the only way the complex plot of the opera makes sense is to treat it as a dream, with the Empress working out her problems with her marriage and her relationship with her father.

To this end not only were there animal avatars (falcon, gazelle, deer buck) played by actors with wonderfully stylish masks, who re-enacted aspects of the plot's back story but Magee's Empress was twinned with Elena Pankratova's Färberin, the one being the reflection of the other, and Magee was present on stage during much of the other action. Schmidt's set for the whole opera was based on the Empress's room in the opening scene, but the central section of the rear wall was on a revolve which made for some spectacular scene changes, and at times a thrilling use of Covent Garden's stage. But the spectacle is not quite aligned to Strauss's score, so that whilst act two did have superbly brilliant moments, the Empress's encounter with her father Keikobad took in act three place in an empty room and we never saw the Emperor as stone statue. Instead the Empress seemed to deal with these in her head.

Claus Guth has come in for some comment as a result of his cutting of the opera, adding new ones in addition to the traditional cuts. So that the opening of act three loses large chunks; the act started with Barak (Johan Reuter) and his wife (Elena Pankratova) in their cells. Die Frau ohne Schatten  is a long opera, but Guth's cuts seem to go to the point where the, admittedly complex, plot no longer quite made sense; but as it was a dream, perhaps this did not matter. Where the production gained is partly in the subtle way Guth used the avatars to illuminate the complex psychology of the piece, but also the way he really made us care about these four strange characters (this was a draw back of the Cox/Hockney production).

In fact, some of the finest Richard Strauss singing I have heard on the operatic stage came at the beginning of act three with Pankratova's moving account of Barak, mein Mann and her subsequent duet with Reuter. One of the nice things about the production was how you developed sympathy not for a glamorous young couple, but for Reuter's hunky, rough-hewn Barak and Pankratova as his statuesque wife.

The most finely imagined singing of the evening came from Reuter as Barak. His was a warmly humane performance combined with a musical account of the score in his expressively grainy, dark hued wife. Elena Pankratova as the Färberin (the Dyer's Wife, here renamed Barak's wife as Barak had become a tanner) had a rather gloriously old-fashioned voice, bright, gleaming and dramatically focussed. It made a lovely change from hearing the role sung by very mature dramatic sopranos. Vocally Pankratova and Magee were far more similar of voice than is usual, which helped to reinforce the production's duality between their two characters. Pankratova was fully able to do the vituperative elements in act two, but like Reuter she was a very human Dyer's Wife using her voice to fine effect in both dramatic and subtle moments.

Johan Botha must be one of the few tenors around today who can sing the challenging role of the Emperor so finely and sympathetically, so it was a shame that his part was cut so heavily. Botha's relatively impassive stage demeanour suits the role, and what he did sing made Richard Strauss's ungrateful writing seem natural and I longed for more.

Magee gave a superb performance as the Empress, on stage for far longer than usual with this character. She sang with gleaming flexibility combined with strong lower register. Flexibility and power characterised her performance, with an immensely sympathetic portrayal of the character. Her Empress was full of conflicted complexity and by the end you rather cared about what was going to happen.

No choreographer was credited but the stylised movements of the Falcon (Anush Hovhannisyan) and the other two avatars (played by actors) was notable. Andi A Muller's video was highly effective, particularly in the magic scenes which form the latter half of act two. The video did remarkably change the look of the set and the climax of act two was visually as well as aurally stunning.

Michaela Schuster made a very strong Nurse, rather sinister and, from my seat in the balcony, rather looked like Frances Barber. She was fully the equal of the other characters vocally and brought out the Nurse's conflicted point of view, never fully evil but never good either.

Almost an extra character in the drama was Semyon Bychkov and the Royal Opera House orchestra, on superb form in Strauss's large scale and complex score. Bychkov drew fine playing from the players and, whilst never seeming to restrain them, kept the balance well. There are some stunningly lovely moments in the score, and Bychkov made them positively luminous. But he also brought out the richness of Strauss's orchestral writing with the superb lower registers of the Keikobad motif. Bychkov kept the whole thing moving, so that it flowed and never dragged. With orchestral playing as fine as this combined with such a strong and well balanced cast, and an involving production it was a shame that we could not have heard of fuller version of the opera. Perhaps in a revival, Guth could be persuaded to open up some of the cuts.

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