Munich’s Frau ohne Schatten a Conductor’s Triumph

GermanyGermany R. Strauss, Die Frau ohne Schatten: Soloists, Bavarian State Orchestra, Kyrill Petrenko (conductor), National Theater, 24.11.2013 (JFL)

Direction: Krzysztof Warlikowski
Sets & Costumes: Malgorzata Szczesniak
Lighting: Felice Ross
Video work: Denis Guégin and Kamil Polak
Choreography: Claude Bardouil
Dramaturgy: Miron Hakenbeck

Barak, the Dyer: Lance Ryan
Dyer’s Wife: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Nurse: Deborah Polaski
Empress: Adrianne Pieczonka
Emperor: Johan Botha
One-eyed Brother: Tim Kuypers
One-Armed Brother: Christian Rieger
Hunchback Brother: Matthew Peña
The Messenger of Keikobad: Sebastian Holecek
The Voice of a Falcon: Eri Nakamaura
The Apparition of a Youth: Dean Power
The Guardian of the Threshold: Hanna-Elisabeth Müller
A Voice From Above: Okka von der Damerau
Various voices of Six Unborn Children (Sechs Kinderstimmen) & voices of Three Town Watchmen

[Picture to be added]

The 50th anniversary of the re-opening of Munich’s National Theater was celebrated with a production—then as now—of Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten. On November 21st the town, or at least the part of it interested in the Bavarian State Opera,was atwitter about the new production as it had not been in many years. That was mostly due to brand new music director Kirill Petrenko who conducted the new production by Krzysztof Warlikowski. Happily, it was a sound success—certainly the second performance and the premiere, too, by all accounts.

But Richard Strauss’ Die Frau Ohne Schatten—although pivotal among his compositions and in most ways except popularity or renown his opus magnum—is a flawed opera and quite impossible to stage. Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto, a mix of the Magic Flute and a Freudian study in hysterics, stretches our suspension of disbelieve even further than the Die Ägyptische Helena. The stage instructions would challenge Peter Jackson to make happen on film. The State Opera’s production does not escape the work’s inherent perils, and so it was quite literally (just) a sound success—because the orchestra was in astonishing, anniversary-worthy form!

Krzysztof Warlikowski—of “Yee-Haw Brokeback Mountain Eugene Onegin”—tells this FrOSch (“Frog”, as Strauss nicknamed his opera) story straight-forward but dressed in modern garb. The actual modern garb comes courtesy costume designer Malgorzata Szczesniak, as do the attractive sets. The whole thing is spiced up with screened videos (Denis Guégin and Kamil Polak) which, one striking exception apart, looked like snatched from the cutting room floor of Bill Viola’s.

The curtain rises with a silently screening of “Last Year at Marienbad” and the opera starts only as the Empress falls into a nurse-and-syringe-assisted sleep. At that early point there is still hope that Warlikowski aims for a clever reality-within-a-dream reworking of the story to make it somehow work. But then Warlikowski curiously sticks to the letter for the remainder, with some baffling literalisms: Drawn swords and the Laundromat-like a battery of front loading washer drums. Wolfgang’s Koch Barak the Dyer—a shlumpy, shabby, middle-aged, lower-class schmuck, made-up to look as unflattering as possible without also making him look unlikable—obligingly stuffs white bed sheets into them. No attempts are made on part of Felice Ross’ lightning design to cast the Empress in way to avoid shadows, avoiding literalism in the one instance where they could add visual appeal.

Johan Botha is dramatically useless and pointless; any staging for taking him into consideration would involve making him do little or better nothing—or perhaps best of all: turn into a stone statue. Come to think of it, he might just have been made for the role of Emperor in this opera! A voice like Botha’s, the like of which there are not too many, means in any case that these are acceptable compromises to make… as long as nothing comparable can be found to cast for a demanding role like the emperor’s. It almost didn’t matter that he was staring down Petrenko and/or the prompter’s box for most of the time. Wisely, in any case, lest he have missed another few entries.

Among the three insufferable brothers of Barak, the One-Eyed (Tim Kuypers) was king, and the One-Armed (Christian Rieger) was decent, but the Hunchback (Matthew Peña—modeled on Rick Moranis) was ineffectual and ungainly. Adrianne Pieczonka’s Empress was a vocal highlight amid the fine cast, agile and voluminous, easy with her trills like an oversized songbird, and thus something for the Red Falcon to compete with—presented on stage by a kid in adorable costume and sung off stage with high-strung lightness by Eri Nakamura. Sebastian Holecek featured a noteworthy good, strong voice, ringing clear and loud as the Messenger of Keikobad. Wolfgang Koch repeated his fine Barak the Dyer that he had already displayed in Salzburg. He stood out then, pleading believably for his idea of forgiveness, love, and family; if he stood out less this time—despite occupying one of only two rôles that could said to be grateful in this opera—it was thanks to a better, more even cast surrounding him and his dramatic possibilities being inadvertently curtailed by the production.

The Nurse, in uncut performances as have become the standard again (Salzburg, New York, Munich), is the other grateful rôle; a fine act for a ‘character sopranos’ which is another word for darkening, beyond-the-career-hump singers who have done and said goodbye to Elektra, make excellent Kostelničkas (Jenůfa), grim, earthy Ortruds, and are headed for career-crowning Clytemnestras. Deborah Polaski did well, moving from insidious seduction to manipulation to dread—even if she couldn’t repeat as moving a performance with this inherently less moving character as was her Kostelnička in the very production with which Petrenko premiered at the State Opera four years ago.

Elena Pankratova’s Dyer’s Wife started on the sharp and strident side—further underscoring the bitchy, whiny side of her character—but gained in warmth and solidity, taking some of the edge off her voice as she sang her way through the first act. Casting a singer with a heavy Russian accent in her German at a German house has implications beyond those of possibly not pleasing the pronunciation-sticklers. While Mme. Pankratova navigated the text-rich part admirably, her accent moved her dramatically in directions (intentionally or not) of East-European catalog-wife: A meant-to-be submissive Kitchen-and-Bedroom wife (just the thing for a feeble minded man; “old fashioned” is the euphemism these days) who then doesn’t turn out as intended and dare develops a will and personality of her own. Although the libretto lends itself to that interpretation, that’s not exactly what the opera is about. The staging emphasized the cliché all the same… and too one-sidedly.

If the Dyer’s Wife is merely a hysterical, nearly-cheating, recalcitrant, thankless harpy, a woman with ideas above her station, thankless towards her hard working, saintly-patient Dyer husband, the whole story falters; loses its point and balance. There is no real reason for a mutual scene of reconciliation that way, or a half way believable chance of achieving it. With as much care as is spent on the Dyer’s Wife’s hysterics, it must be shown that, why, and how she is wronged. At the essence is Barak’s refusal to look at his wife (tellingly nameless, defined as her husband’s wife) as an individual. Instead she is a place holder, a rôle she has to play in his life… that of wife—which is to say mother of his children. He puts up with the tantrums of his wife with righteous, almost childish patience. He doesn’t treat her badly because he doesn’t treat her at all as a person. He waits for babies and expects her to find her calling in that—negating any ideas of individuality. And he will happily, innocently bumble about… until his wife repents and he can graciously accept her repentance.

But beneath Barak’s good-natured patience lies negligence at least, and actually wanton injustice and cruelty. In order to realize herself as a person, his wife tries to pull every trick in the book to get any personalized reaction at all from her husband—even if it is just murderous anger. She gets it, eventually, which is when the two can finally meet as equals or at least two actual personalities… and then try again with their attempt of making a home—and a family—now made up of two individuals that are incorporated in a marriage; not procreation-aimed servitude but a merging of two into one as an equitable partnership.

Unfortunately, by the time the production tried to get to this point—assuming it tried—both characters had already been far too removed from each other in their clichéd worlds. Their reunion became an unmotivated farce. At this point it should have become clear, at the latest, how Christof Loy’s Salzburg production wasn’t in fact—as I had thought—“too clever by half”, but actually terribly, terribly clever. Not perfect, of course (which is presumably impossible), but so well handled, that none of its characters became exsanguinated and stayed plausibly human throughout—which was one of Richard Strauss’ big worries with the work. Even the Jonathan Kent production at the Mariinsky Opera (recently released on their own label on Blu-ray/DVD and in some ways quite similar to Warlikowski’s production) handles that aspect better, although it remains in every other way mediocre and unsatisfactory; a questionable effort that seems to have been victim of a “good-enough-for-Russia-attitude” attitude. (On the “good-enough” front: Fake smoking from unlit fake cigarettes is pathetic. Smoke properly or don’t smoke at all—the rest is high-school theatrics.)

This might all be spending too much time on an aspect few audience members—myself included—will have cared about, because it wasn’t at all the point of the performance. That was the music—and more specifically the way the orchestra operated under their new boss. Under Petrenko, who has elicited effusive praise from orchestra members during rehearsal period already, it played with uncommon precision and verve… probably the best I remember having heard an opera orchestra play and with a phenomenal cello solo in the second act during one of the (would-be) scene changes. There was enormous plasticity, detail, and impeccable articulation to marvel at—and also brutal climaxes and torrents of sound. The modernity of Strauss’ score came to the fore in unheard of ways, and while not at all in the Strauss-ideal Thielemanesque empathetic-romantic-lush-and-enrapturing style, this visceral-precise-modern-clear-sinuous-loud-and-impressive take impressed at all points.

Jens F. Laurson

Leave a Comment