Symbolic and Shadowless – Strauss’s Die Frau Ohne Schatten

ArgentinaArgentina Strauss, Die Frau ohne Schatten: Soloists,Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro Colón. Conductor:Ira Levin, Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires. 14.6.2013. (JSJ)

Director: Andreas Homoki
Sets / costumes: Wolfgang Gussmann
Costumes: Renata Schussheim
Lighting: Frank Evin
Chorus: Miguel Martínez
Children’s Chorus: César Bustamante

Emperor: Stephen Gould
Empress: Manuela Uhl
Nurse: Iris Vermillion
Barak: Jukka Rasilainen
Barak’s wife: Elena Pankratova
Spírit Messenger: Jochen Kupfer
Guardian of Temple: Marisú Pavón
Apparition of Youth: Pablo Sánchez
Voice of the Falcon: Victoria Gaeta
One-Eyed Brother: Mario De Salvo
One-Armed Brother: Emiliano Bulacios
Hunchback Brother: Sergio Spina
Voice from Above: Alejandra Malvino

Nederlandse Opera’s production of Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten at Teatro Colón. (Photo Teatro Colón)

Just as Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal thought of Der Rosenkavalier as their Figaro, so too their next work but one Die Frau ohne Schatten was intended as their Zauberflöte. Similar in having both human and spiritual dimensions, Die Frau is less obviously, but no less, symbolic, and it is this that seems to be behind this 2008 production from Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam by Andreas Homoki, which has now been brought to the Teatro Colón as only the fifth production of the work and the first in almost 34 years.

Symbols of all sorts abound, harshly in black against white – in the walls of the triangular shaped setting and in the dress of the nurse and of the spirits. They are also carried over in the form of various combinations of giant arrows indicating the domains of the Emperor and Empress, who also incidentally are given the colour blue. Conversely the earthly Barak and his wife and brothers, given the colour yellow, dwell in a big box.

Well, make of this what one will, but the scenic challenges are formidable facing any director of this work, in which the scenes in the first two acts alternate between the worlds of the Emperor and Barak, and in the third with subterranean and other landscapes. The Empress is seeking to obtain a shadow to avoid being returned to her celestial father, the unseen Keikobad, and the Emperor turned to stone. Cajoling her on is the nurse, with their sights on the unnamed wife of Barak, who, with some temptation, appears only too willing to give up her shadow and with it the ability to bear children. However, at the last the Empress refuses the shadow, only to be rewarded with one, the Emperor already started to turn to stone is released, and the Baraks reunite, with the promise of unborn children for both couples.

This ‘fairy tale’ is set by Strauss to hugely expressive music, here outstandingly played by an augmented, almost 120 strong, Colón orchestra under new principal conductor Ira Levin, with the intimate chamber-like moments well highlighted against a fluid broader canvas.

The principals were equally outstanding, with Manuela Uhl a vulnerable but expressive Empress, Elena Pankratova a suitably shrewish wife, and Iris Vermillion commanding and colourful as the nurse. Jukka Rasilainen, last seen as Wotan in the ‘Colón Ring’, well portrayed the helplessness of Barak, and Stephen Gould with his huge presence was a fine Emperor.

Praise too for some of the minor roles, notably Jochen Kupfer as the Spirit Messenger, Mario De Salvo, Emiliano Bulacios and Sergio Spina adding a touch of both comedy and tensión as Barak’s disfigured brothers, and Victoria Gaeta’s Voice of the Falcon from the heights of the theatre.

Given that this is a far from popular work coupled with its musical and dramatic demands, and that the opportunity of seeing it again in the foreseeable future is slight, one can but only feel privileged to have seen this production of this calibre – despite the production itself not being entirely to taste.

Jonathan Spencer Jones