An uneven concert performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten at Musikfest Berlin

GermanyGermany Musikfest Berlin [2] – Strauss, Die Frau ohne Schatten: Soloists, Children’s Choir of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (chorus director, Vinzenz Weissenburger), Berlin Radio Chorus (chorus director, Benjamin Goodson), Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Philharmonie, Berlin, 1.9.2019. (MB)

Musikfest Berlin’s Die Frau ohne Schatten (c) Monika Karczmarczyk

Emperor – Torsten Kerl
Empress – Anne Schwanewilms
Nurse – Ildikó Komlósi
Spirit-Messenger – Yasushi Hirano
Barak – Thomas Johannes Mayer
Dyer’s Wife – Ricarda Merbeth
Apparition of Youth – Michael Pflumm
Voice of the Falcon – Nadezhda Gulitskaya
Voice from Above – Karolina Gumos
Guardian of the Temple Threshold – Andrey Nemzer
The One-Eyed – Tom Erik Lie
The One-Armed – Jens Larsen
The Hunchback – Christoph Späth
Night-Watchmen – Christian Oldenburg, Philipp Alexander Behr, Artyom
Maids, Unborn, Children’s Voices – Sophie Klußmann, Verena Usemann, Jennifer Gleinig, Alice Lackner, Vizma Zvaigzne

Concert performances of opera are strange things. So too, of course, are stagings of opera, albeit often in different ways; Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal knew that better than most, on which see (and hear) Ariadne auf Naxos. Yet a concert performance will likely ever remain ‘ein sonderbar Ding’, as the Marschallin might have put it. Important also is the way one comes, either individually or as an audience, to such a performance. Does one view – a fraught verb, here, but I shall stick with it – it as closer to an audio recording, in which one follows the libretto, even the score, and perhaps goes so far as to stage it in one’s head? Does one take the more overtly reactionary view of expressing relief that the work is not being messed about by a stage director who may be clueless or may just have ideas other than one’s own? Or does one view the situation in more positive terms, as an opportunity to concentrate on the opera’s musical qualities, not so much undistracted, as heard in superior performing conditions? Symphony orchestras may have the opportunity to fill in harmful gaps in their repertoires: does it make sense for an orchestra to play Beethoven and Mahler, without ever touching more than a Wagner overture or prelude, or to play Strauss tone poems without reference to Strauss’s operas? It may be a matter of cost, too, and the only way some works will gain a hearing at all, especially in countries less blessed operatically than those of the German-speaking world.

Those and other positions are, of course, far from mutually exclusive. Moreover, one’s aesthetic stance may well be called into question: generally a very good thing. Much, for instance, as I know and feel the Ring should be staged; much as I long for a production that begins to do it justice (alas, only one to date in my live theatrical experience); I also know that two of the most powerful Wagnerian experiences of my life have been ‘concert stagings’ and concert performances of the Ring, both in the distinctly unpromising terrain of the Royal Albert Hall. Ultimately, a performance is what it is: a unique event, with affinities to others, yet never quite to be reduced to them. Why such ruminations, then? Partly to try to understand my reaction; I have not, Parsifal-like, come from nowhere. But also, I hope, to try to help readers who may have been more involved than I found myself by this Frau ohne Schatten to understand.

Ultimately, I wonder whether this is an opera that lends itself especially well to concert performance. One may well, with equal justice, wonder from its stage directions whether it lends itself well to staged performance. But most of us by now have, thank God, moved on from any conception of slavish adherence to such directions. Directors as different as Robert Wilson, Claus Guth, and Krzysztof Warlikowski have all brought imaginative and communicative standpoints to bear on the work. There have, of course, been less successful stagings, a nadir surely being Christof Loy’s ‘I cannot be bothered to stage the work at all’ production for Salzburg, but that will always be the case. This is a musical drama, in many ways a complex musical drama and for many a problematic one too. That need not in itself entail staging, but I felt too little dramatic thrust as a whole on this occasion: not so much from the singers, most of whom tried to inject a degree or two of such dynamism, as from Vladimir Jurowski.

As with much other opera I have heard from him, in and out of the opera house, Jurowski’s conducting seemed not only oddly formalist but, within that framework, sectional sometimes to the point of dramatic inertia. It was not so much a lack of longer line, a common problem among lesser conductors, but what came across as a definite aesthetic stance, only undermined by whipping up of highly conventional ‘excitement’ – getting louder, faster – at the ends of many sections: the close of the second act a case in point. I am not sure one can have it both ways; or rather one can, but should one? More conversational passages, moreover, seemed strangely underplayed, as if they were acres of undistinguished recitativo secco (an exaggeration, I know, but never mind), for which tightness of orchestral control might be relinquished not for flexibility as for nonchalance and even slight fuzziness (if nothing on the scale of Zubin Mehta’s recent unhappy way with the work, also in Berlin). There were passages of great interest, to be sure, although more timbral than harmonic. Jurowski seemed happiest when able to apply unusually hard-edged, even brittle, tone to the work, as if to undermine its sumptuousness. Strauss as ’20s Hindemith has a certain fascination: except such a conducting stance seemed sooner rather than latter forgotten, whatever the excellence of playing, whether in solo or ensemble, by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. Such excellence was not quite, however, accompanied by the familiarity that an opera house orchestra would have brought to the score, for how could it be? Likewise, the singing of the Berlin Radio Chorus, very fine in its way, did not and could not speak of the immersion a stage run could. Interestingly, the Staatsoper children’s choir suggested stronger memories of the stage (in that Guth production, as conducted by Mehta).

What of the solo singing? In London, Jurowski has made some very odd choices with singers. That was perhaps less the case here, although amongst the principals it was only really Ildikó Komlósi’s Nurse whose musico-dramatic star shone as brightly as any on stage. The role is a gift, of course, Strauss and Hofmannsthal at their collaborative best, but Komlósi grabbed the gift and made it her own as a singing actress who can, unquestionably, sing. Ricarda Merbeth also gave a good account her role in a sincere, musical, verbally attentive performance as the Dyer’s Wife. If Thomas Johannes Mayer’s Barak sometimes would have benefited from greater heft, he nonetheless brought similar verbal acuity to his performance. Torsten Kerl and Anne Schwanewilms were more awkwardly cast, Kerl’s Emperor often sounding distinctly elderly, sometimes overwhelmed by an orchestra Jurowski did a great deal to keep down. Schwanewilms had some wonderful moments; there was no doubting the dedication of her performance. There were other moments, however, in which the role now sounded sadly beyond her. ‘Supporting’ roles were generally very well taken, though Nadezhda Gulitskaya’s Falcon will not have appealed to all vocal tastes. I have not heard a countertenor sing the Guardian of the Temple Threshold before, but Andrey Nemzer certainly made his presence felt in an intriguingly florid account.

Much to ponder, then, and the audience reacted with enthusiasm less alloyed. This seems to be the beginning of a Strauss opera series for the orchestra, akin to that of Wagner’s ‘canonical’ dramas under Marek Janowski. There was certainly enough of merit here to warrant keeping an eye – and ear – open for future instalments.

Mark Berry

(This performance will be broadcast on 7 September 2019, 18.05 CEST, across Europe, including UKW, Kabel, and Digitalradio in Berlin.)

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