Herlitzius in a Class of Her Own

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Strauss R., Die Frau ohne Schatten   Soloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich, conductor, Peter Tilling, Zurich Opera, Zurich. 22.11.2014 (JR)

Die Frau Ohne Schatten photographer: Susanne Schwiertz
Die Frau Ohne Schatten
photographer, Susanne Schwiertz


The Emperor, Roberto Saccà
The Empress, Emily Magee
The Nurse, Birgit Remmert
Barak, Thomas Johannes Mayer
Barak’s wife, Evelyn Herlitzius
One-eyed man, Valerij Murga
One-armed man, Wenwei Zhang
The humpback, Airam Hernandez
The messenger, Reinhard Mayr
Voice of the falcon, Hamida Kristofersen
The falcon, Beate Vollack
The youth, Yujoong Kim
Voice from above, Judit Kutasi[/table]

Director, David Pountney
Scenic producer, Sylvie Döring
Set, Robert Israel
Costumes, Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting, Jürgen Hoffmann
Chorus, Ernst Raffelsberger
Choreography, Beate Vollack


Many, me included, consider “Die Frau” as it is affectionately known amongst Straussians, as his finest opera. Elektra might pack a mightier punch, Salome has surely some wondrous passages, Rosenkavalier might be prettier, but Die Frau ohne Schatten, despite its batty elements, succeeds as a whole, even if a lengthy one.

Take a clever ingenious producer, David Pountney, an experienced conductor, throw in singers at the top of their game, and the night can be unforgettable, as it was at Zurich’s Opera.

Hugo von Hofmannthal’s plot is clearly his take on the Magic Flute. The story follows two childless couples, one an Emperor and his shadow-less Empress (she is a half-spirit), the other a simple textile dyer (Barak) and his wife. Other than Barak, no other characters we see on stage are given a name. The Empress’ father, Keikobad (unseen) has decreed that unless her daughter can, after a year’s fruitless search and now within the last remaining three days, somehow acquire a shadow (which one needs, of course, to bear children) then her husband the Emperor will be turned into stone. The Empress, aided by her Nurse (who also has spurious links to the spirit-world), set off for the human world to try to buy a shadow: she does this from the Dyer’s world-weary wife who is seduced to exchange it for some fancy jewellery and the chance of an extra-marital fling. As in the Zauberflöte, it all ends well, of course, and both couples rejoice, and presumably go on to start a family.

David Pountney places the opera at the end of the Habsburg era, around 1914, with a dash of Victoriana, portraying the transfer of the Empress from upstairs to downstairs, from the opulence of the aristocratic class to the ordinary milieu of the middle and working classes (or humanity). Act One is set in a room at the Emperor’s palace, with flock wallpaper and carpet depicting chrysanthemums to evoke the Oriental flavour. The spirit world is depicted by bird-men, from the red falcon (splendidly and acrobatically danced and choreographed by Beate Vollack) to the Gothic black-feathered Nurse, to Keikobad’s black winged messenger on stilts, to a grotesque flock of ravens carrying the Emperor’s coffin as he turns to stone in the Empress’ nightmare scene.

Act Two is set in the Dyer’s threadbare home, evoking Dickens and pre-Industrial Revolution days; there are rolls of uncoloured cloth awaiting to be dyed, a row of basic sewing-machines and young workhouse boys looking suitably down-trodden.

Act Three provides a contrast and gives Pountney a chance to use the revolving stage (a tiered stage is used for the previous Acts). After the earthquake at the very end of Act Two which destroys the Dyer’s home and much else, we see an ash-strewn mass of rubble (and the occasional part of a corpse) where the two couples eventually discover themselves and each other, their love, their fertility. It is an ingenious production (the falcon house for instance being a child’s nursery, complete with gazelle soft toy) with many fairy-tale elements, the unborn children have scary swollen face-masks, trade-mark Pountney

One singer stood out: Evelyn Herlitzius as the Dyer’s wife is the dramatic German soprano of the moment, more in the mould of Birgit Nilsson than Hildegard Behrens or Gwyneth Jones, with steely power combined with a determined stage presence. She was simply stunning.

 The Empress was commendably sung by Emily Magee, who also sang the role to great acclaim at Covent Garden not long ago, her voice improved immeasurably as the evening progressed. I was surprised she took the final curtain call at the end before Herlitzius, but she is the central character, the woman without the shadow.

 Thomas Johannes Meyer has a fine warm baritone and was absolutely first-rate as the Dyer though he lacked a little power when pitched against the women. Birgitt Remmert was a more than decent Nurse, always looking malevolent. Reinhard Mayr as Keikobad’s Messenger deserves a medal for singing on stilts – I would have liked a bit more volume from him. That leaves the Emperor, always a difficult role to fill in this opera (Strauss, of course, was stronger when writing for the female voice). Roberto Saccà, half Italian, half German, hits all the top notes, has more than sufficient stamina, but he neither looks nor sounds quite right in German opera.

 Fabio Luisi was to have conducted these revival performances but withdrew for family reasons, leaving German conductor Peter Tilling in charge of the pit. This work has the largest orchestra of any opera, including a glass harmonium. Tilling, a former cellist at the Munich Philharmonic, conducted some of the performances when this work was premièred here five years ago, so is no novice to the score. (He also stepped in at Bayreuth a few years ago for “Tannhäuser”). He drew out all the relevant nuances of the detailed score, stressing its ultra-modern elements. Tempi and dynamics were perfectly judged. The orchestra played very well for him; Claudius Herrmann, principal cello, particularly stood out for his wondrous solo contributions.

 Who has the most difficult task in this opera? The lighting engineer, who has to try to avoid giving the central character a shadow and yet not leave her in the gloom. A nigh impossible task, as it also turned out in this production. A nice Pountney touch was for the final quartet: the singers had changed out of their costumes into “civvies” to signify the fairy-tale was coming to an end – as they sang, a stage-hand with clipboard and microphone came on to start dismantling the set.

 Applause was lengthy, and for Herlitzius ecstatic – she returns to Zurich for Elektra at the end of June next year (also with Emily Magee as Chrysothemis and Hanna Schwarz as Klytämnestra). Catch her if you can.

John Rhodes

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