Thursday 27 March 2014

Lurking in the shadows: Die Frau ohne Schatten

Emily Magee (the Empress). Picture credit Monika Rittershaus © Teatro alla Scala
Emily Magee (the Empress).
Picture credit Monika Rittershaus © Teatro alla Scala
Richard Strauss Die Frau Ohne Schatten: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Mar 26 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Claus Guth's stylish new production of Strauss and Hofmannsthal's opera

Die Frau ohne Schatten by Richard Strauss (1864-1949) at the Royal Opera House was a deliciously dark fairy tale. This gothic and surreal adaptation by director Claus Guth was dream-like and confusing. Only once I got home and read the synopsis did I understand why I was having so much trouble - much of the explanations were missing. This four and an half hour long production was massively cut from Strauss' original and Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto, but the performances and music shone through to make it a production not to be missed.

Much of my confusion was centred around the 'fairies'. It was hard to know whether the Emperor (Johan Botha) and Empress (Emily Magee) were from another realm or human, and how Keikobad (the Empress' father) fitted into the scheme. Adding to this there was another layer with Philip Pullman's daemon-like masked figures: a gazelle symbolising the Empress' life before she was married and her internal thoughts, a falcon (Anush Hovhannisyan) symbolising her capture and singing damning portents (the Emperor will turn to stone), and an oddly menacing stag. I never quite worked out who the stag was meant to represent, the Emperor or Keikobad, but he was lovely to watch. The three figures were fantastically portrayed with beautifully stylised movements - I could have looked at just them with Strauss' music and been happy.

By adding extra symbolism some of the original premise became diluted. The idea of the Empress' lack of shadow representing her inability to have children was completely lost on me; especially because the Dyer's wife (Elena Pankratova), whose shadow the nurse (Michaela Schuster) takes for the Empress, also cannot have children. It seemed more logical that the shadow was linked to the Empress' lost talisman, or to the fact that she was from another realm - since it is stated early on that only humans have shadows. Consequently I found the projected fish/sperm and floating foetus'/babies' heads a little odd the first time they appeared.

Another level of change in the opera affected the humans. The dyer - Barak (Johan Reuter) had been replaced by a tanner, carrying around a deer skin with a gazelle's head – a disturbing touch given the Empress' association with a gazelle. The three brothers (Adrian Clarke, Jeremy White, and Hubert Francis), originally all disabled, explaining why the Dyer insisting on looking after them, were all hale, notwithstanding an eye-patch here or there. Near the beginning they seemed to be trying to rape the Dyer's wife which seems a perfectly valid excuse for not wanting them in the house, and further reducing the sympathy the audience may have had with the Dyer's (who is supposed to be the good guy) character.

Putting all this aside, the singing and performances were outstanding. The main five characters particularly so. Despite the handicapping of his part by the production, Reuter's Barak was a kind man desperate to help his wife, and was welcoming to her 'family'. Even when he believed that she had cheated on him he tried to find her and forgive her. Botha, the Emperor, seemed to be cut from the same cloth, but remained a more ambiguous character.

Barak's wife, portrayed by Pankratova, was frustrated and tempted, but essentially she loved her husband and spent as much time trying to win him back as get rid of him. Schuster, the nurse, verged on psychopathic – out to cause mischief regardless of who got hurt along the way. Emily Magee, as the Empress, was on stage for most of the time, observing when not interacting, clearly horrified at the pain humans have to endure for love and her own pain at losing her husband.

The performances were aided by the impressive staging. The whole back wall rotated like a secret door in a spy-film's library – but on a massive scale. Stylish veneered plywood panelling and huge windows delineated which scene was which, even opening out onto a mountain. The stage also included a travellator which doubled as a stream with a boat gliding along.
The massed orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Semyon Bychkov gave a concert performance. The range, contrasts, and depth of sound possible with so many performers was a treat to listen to. Strauss' score written 1914-17 makes great use of a wide romantic sound, sometimes threatening with heavy base lines, sometimes disturbing (the much repeated falcon motif), sometimes tender and caring. In this performance there was no let up in the emotional rollercoaster.

You can see Die Frau ohne Schatten at the ROH until the 2nd of April and hear it live on March 29th on BBC Radio 3 from 17:50.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover
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