Valery Gergiev conducts a masterly Mariinsky production of Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten

Russian FederationRussian Federation Richard Strauss, Die Frau ohne Schatten: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre / Valery Gergiev (conductor). Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, 28.9.2021. (GT)

Mariinsky Theatre’s Die Frau ohne Schatten © Natasha Razina

Stage director – Jonathan Kent
Production designer – Paul Brown
Lighting designer – Tim Mitchell
Choreography – Denny Sayers
Children’s Chorus director – Irina Yatsemirskaya

The Empress – Mlada Khudoley
The Emperor – Andreas Schager
The Nurse – Olga Savova
The Messenger of Keikobad – Ilya Bannik
Dyer’s wife – Elena Pankratova
Barak – Vadim Kravets
The Hunchback – Vasily Gorshkov
The One-eyed Man – Alexander Gerasimov
The One-armed Man – Nikolay Kamensky
The Guardian of the Threshold – Lyudmila Razumkova
The Apparition of a Youth – Alexander Timchenko
The Voice of the Falcon – Irina Mataeva
A Voice from Above – Yekaterina Krapivina

Reviewing a staging at Covent Garden of this opera in the 1960s, the critic Philip Hope-Wallace wrote: ‘Certain operas require an act of faith: you must plunge into the music and let it engulf you. Presently you may surface into a sea of symbols. After some repeated efforts you may find yourself borne along on the floodtide to a full awareness of what poet and composer are saying: in short, or long, get the message.’

The history of performances of Richard Strauss in Russia go back to 1896 when the composer visited Moscow and St Petersburg for concerts. He returned in 1913 for performances of his own music with the Imperial Court Orchestra and attended rehearsals of his new opera Elektra at the Mariinsky conducted by Albert Coates and directed by Vsevolod Meyerhold. Unfortunately, the modernism of the new stage work was not popular with audiences, and it left the repertoire after just three performances. There followed many years in which his music was banned during the Great War and during the Nazi period. Yevgeny Mravinsky revived his orchestral tone poems at the Leningrad Philharmonic leading to a reassessment of this great composer. In more recent times his operas have returned to the stages of Russia’s main opera companies. However, only the Mariinsky Theatre has this opera in the repertoire in Russia.

The Mariinsky Theatre researcher Yekaterina Yusupova tells us ‘“A woman has no shadow and so her husband must be turned into stone.” This connection between two events – so strange that it could only have come from the realm of dreams – formed the basis for one of the most unusual and bewitching operas of the twentieth century. The first to have this dream was not the composer but rather his librettist. In 1911 Hugo von Hofmannsthal, an Austrian playwright who sang the praises of love and death in his symbolist poems and dramas, proposed the unusual subject to his great friend Richard Strauss. The Empress – a being from the spirit world – has to become the same as all living men and acquire a shadow (a symbol for humankind and for womanhood) or her husband will be turned to stone. The simple subject canvas opens up a rich world of ideas, and in the language of symbols it tells of the birth of a personality through the struggle for its soul with dark forces. Not by chance were von Hofmannsthal and Strauss contemporaries of Nietzsche and Freud, who opened the door to Europeans to the world of the subconscious. However, von Hofmannsthal’s inspiration came not from Freud but rather from ancient Eastern tales and the romantic novellas of Chamisso, Novalis and Lenau.’

This production dates from 16 November 2009 here, and the company has toured with it, including to the Edinburgh International Festival in 2011 where it was well received by both audiences and critics alike.

Mariinsky Theatre’s Die Frau ohne Schatten © Natasha Razina

The opera opens with loud bursts on the brass and shrieking woodwind that immediately arrest the audience’s attention to the magnitude of the opera’s bleak narrative. The curtains open to reveal a delightful fairy-tale scene with the great red door of the Emperor’s palace, the Nurse (Olga Savova) dressed in Russian lubok folk style exits nervously, ‘Light over the lake – flowing radiance – swift as a bird!’ The Messenger (Ilya Bannik) suspended opposite her with a symbolic golden fish answers, ‘It is not the master, not Keikobad, but his messenger!’ as exotically attired palace guards drill and dance in the foreground, the Messenger warns that the Emperor will be turned into stone if the Empress does not love him in three days. The Emperor (Andreas Schager) enters who tells of his departure on a hunting trip and asks she take care of the Empress, as soon as he leaves, the Empress (Mlada Khudoley) dressed in a beautiful golden ball gown appears ‘Has my beloved gone?’ in an aria of silvery suppleness accompanied by a beautiful passage from solo violin, and there then descends the figure of a great golden falcon in a wonderful scene of magical music, crying, ‘The woman casts no shadow, the Emperor must turn to stone!’ The Empress pleads ‘Nurse, I implore you, Where can I find a shadow? … I want to have a shadow! Day is breaking: Lead me to them, I will go to them, I will go! I will!’ As they leave for Earth, the scene descends into a stormy orchestral passage.

Scene two opens in a modern-day garage/laundry where the quarrel of Barak’s three brothers is ended by the Dyer’s wife (Elena Pankratova) throwing a bucket of water over them, her husband Barak (Vadim Kravets) enters and has a tiff with her, but she rejects him ‘For two and a half years have I been your wife – and no fruit have you won from me…’. This is interrupted by the entry of the Empress and the Nurse singing – accompanied by a beautifully lyrical passage on the strings – ‘Ah! Matchless beauty! Dazzling flame!’ attempting to entice her to submit to her magic, ‘But, you blessed one, eager purchasers will pay anything, anything, if such a one as you, my lady, will cast off your shadow and give it away!’ Suddenly out of the cupboards and washing machines slave girls emerge singing, ‘Ah, mistress, sweet mistress! Ah! …’ dancing around and disappearing almost as soon as they appeared, leaving Barak and his wife to bemoan their fates, and we hear offstage children’s voices, ‘Mother, mother, let us come home! The door is bolted, we can’t get in!’ The Dyer’s wife agonises while images of babies are projected on the wall behind her: ‘What is that horrible whining noise coming from the fire?’

In Act II, we see how the Nurse entices the Dyer’s wife by summoning up the vision of a young man who can give her what she desires, surprised, the Empress asks, ‘Are men like this? Are their hearts so corruptible?’ As Barak returns with his goods, there is a wild festive celebration with children dancing and singing yet this ends quickly with Barak quarrelling with his wife. The next scene takes us back to the imperial falcon house, encircled by trees with birds flying in a passage accompanied by a beautiful solo cello. The Emperor dismounts from his golden horse and laments about life, ‘Falcon, falcon, lost and found again, whither do you lead me, you wise bird?’ We see the Empress and her Nurse slip into the house, and he cries, ‘Sword, my sword, you must attack her!’ The scene switches back to the earthly workshop where Barak falls asleep, and the Nurse entices his wife to submit to a young man who appears as a ghostly figure, the lights come on and Barak is awoken, and he and his wife continue their squabble.

In the next scene, in the falcon house, we return to the forest scene with dark clouds and cherubs falling to the ground, and now the Empress mourns, ‘See Nurse, see the man’s eyes, how tormented they look!’ In the background, dancers slowly move across the stage with an eery offstage chorus singing, and we hear the golden falcon’s voice (Irina Mataeva) crying out ‘The woman casts no shadow, the Emperor must turn to stone!’ The Empress sings, ‘Whatever I touch I kill! Woe is me! Rather would I myself be turned to stone!’ In scene five, we return to Barak’s garage, where the brothers watch TV, and the Dyer’s wife agonises as before while the Nurse sings, ‘Higher powers are in play…’ in Olga Savova’s momentously terrific singing, equalled by the impressive Barak of Vadim Kravets. Suddenly the Nurse tells the Empress, ‘Now for it! Seize the shadow and take it for your own!’ In the confrontation with his wife, Barak attacks her with a sword, she defies him, and finally gives in and kneels before him as he raises the sword, and suddenly flames arise, as the Nurse cries out, ‘Higher powers are in play! Hither to me!’

In Act III, a plaintive bass clarinet creates a dark forbidding mood before dazzling woodwind present the scene of an underground vault as we hear the offstage voices of the unborn children, the ever-suffering Dyer’s wife, sings ‘Hush, be quiet, be quiet, you voices!’ Unaware of his wife’s presence, Barak sings plaintively ‘Woe is me! If I might see her once again’, they see each other embrace, and finally an offstage voice sings, ‘Woman go up, the way is open’ and she makes her leave by a staircase. Suddenly we are in a dark scene with the Messenger and his attendant spirits, while the Nurse and Empress approach on a boat, ‘Higher powers are playing with us! To a most ghastly place…’ in the Nurse’s magnificent, prolonged aria, she despairingly collapses ‘What men need? Fraud is the food for which they long.’ The Messenger utters a curse at the Empress and disappears into smoke. In the third scene, we hear offstage singing, the intense singing of the Nurse is accompanied by a solo violin, before a huge rock emerges from the mist. Strauss’s marvellous orchestration of harps, woodwind and percussion is revelatory in this section as mist envelops the stage and the rock opens up for Andreas Schager as the Emperor to emerge singing as a genuine heldentenor with both power and passion. He joins hand with the Empress and beams of light cross the scene, they turn to walk back while the Dyer’s wife enters with Barak who embrace, and all four sing joyously as an image of the golden falcon flies overhead as the offstage chorus of unborn children sing. While all four move to the rear of the stage praising their unborn children, a group of young modern-dressed people enter and move slowly to the front looking out into the audience to bring the opera to a sublime close.

The singing throughout this complex stage work was outstanding, especially so in the difficult roles of the Empress and Mlada Khudoley was magisterial embracing the high notes and always a completely credible character. The Nurse of Olga Savova also was dramatically intense and singing powerful or sensitively when required allied to tremendous acting, as were the principal male roles of the Emperor performed by Austrian heldentenor Andreas Schager and the impressive Vadim Kravets as Barak. The secondary roles were all finely sung and enacted. Valery Gergiev conducted a masterly performance bringing out world-class orchestral, choral and solo singing – another mark of the Mariinsky’s embracing complex, more modern operatic works.

Gregor Tassie

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