Die Frau Ohne Schatten: Strikingly Successful

HungaryHungary Strauss: Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Operahaz Orchestra, Péter Halász (conductor), Budapest’s Operahaz, 31.5.2014 (JMI)

Die Frau Ohne Schatten: Photo: Hungarian State Opera

Empress: Eszter Sümegi
Barak’s Wife: Szilvia Rálik
Nurse: Ildikó Komlosi
Barak: Heiko Trinsinger
Emperor: István Kovácsházi
Keikobad Messenger: Zsolt Haja
Falcon: Erika Markovics
Temple Guardian: Ingrid Kertesi
Barak’s one-eyed brother: Lajos Geiger
Barak’s one-armed brother: Ferenc Cserhalmi
Barak’s hunchback brother: István Horváth

Production: Operahaz Budapest
Direction: János Szikora
Sets: Balász Horesnyi
Costumes: Kati Zoób

The Woman Without a Shadow is one of the most difficult operas to perform, and few companies are up to the task. To the difficulties of staging this fairy-tale or  fantasy opera must be added major orchestral requirements. Finally, it takes five very important singers in the main characters, with voices that are rather scarce nowadays. For an opera company to rely solely on its own resources to provide all this is often more an illusion than a reality. However, in Budapest, success has been achieved. Miracles still exist.

The stage production is by János Szikora, who solves the difficulties with a lot of imagination. There is only one stage for the three acts: a sort of astronomical observatory, in a round shape, with two columns and an open roof in the middle. For the different scenes, Mr. Szikora makes use of the top of the stage where black-and-whiite images are projected on screens. Sometimes they show what is happening below on stage, and at other times there are images relative to motifs in the opera’s plot. In this way it is possible to make scene changes with great agility, and the complex argument can be easily followed. The stage direction is excellent, especially with the three female leading characters. The costumes are neither convincing nor attractive.

The musical direction was in the hands of Péter Halász, the current music director of the Budapest Opera House, and he was a revelation on the podium. It was the first time that I heard him conducting, and the result was truly impressive. Maybe I missed having more fantasy in the first act, but in the last two acts he was truly outstanding. The Orchestra of Budapest Opera House offered a great performance and a brilliant sound. The wonderful interpretation of the violin solo that Strauss wrote for Act III was a particular highlight.

This opera requires five great singers, and it is always a real puzzle for any theater that wants to perform it, as the difficulties, especially in four of the parts, are extraordinary. The Budapest Opera solved the problem with singers from their own company; there was a guest singer only in the part of Barak.

Eszter Sümegi was spectacular as the Empress, the best in the entire cast. I hadn’t heard her in nine years (she was then at the Frankfurt Opera), and I found her in great vocal shape. The role of the Empress is one of the hardest ever written: it requires a lot of power, the voice is much exposed at the top and agility is also needed. Eszter Sümegi was superb, singing in a very expressive way and able to move the audience.

Barak’s wife is another impossible character to sing. It takes a true Wagnerian soprano, a kind of Isolde or Brünnhilde, to overcome  the demands of the score, and Szilvia Rálik was excellent. Her voice is not very big but it is perfectly projected, and she has remarkable stage skills. Only at the very top was her pitch less than perfect.

The third female in the cast is the Nurse, interpreted here by Ildikó Komlósi. This too is a part full of difficulties since its tessitura requires a contralto at times and a true soprano minutes later. Ms. Komlósi has lost some freshness in her voice, but she made up for that with an impeccable and exciting performance .

Heiko Trinsinger was the only guest artist, and he offered a compelling Barak. This German baritone is part of the Essen Opera, and it is unusual to see him outside that city. He was an attractive and consistent Barak, singing with gusto and perfectly expressing the feelings and the goodness of the character.

The Emperor was played by István Kovácsházi, whose performance was not at the same height as those of his colleagues. His voice suits the part and the timbre has some appeal, but he lacks emotion in his singing.

The secondary characters were not at the same level, but they were good.

José Mª Irurzun

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