Swedish premiere for unjustly forgotten Die schweigsame Frau

SwedenSweden Richard Strauss, Die schweigsame Frau: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Gothenburg Opera / Yoel Gamzou (conductor). Gothenburg Opera main stage, 4.3.2023. (NS)

Gothenburg Opera’s Die schweigsame Frau with a rather stunned Sir Morosus (centre, Anders Lorentzson) © Lennart Sjöberg

Original direction – Barrie Kosky
Assistant director – Philipp Rosendahl
Choreography – Magdalena Padrosa
Set and Costume design – Esther Bialas
Lighting design – Benedikt Zehm
Dramaturgy – Olaf A. Schmitt

Sir Morosus – Anders Lorentzson
His housekeeper – Katarina Giotas
The barber – Hannes Öberg
Henry Morosus – Eleazar Rodríguez
Aminta – Sofie Asplund
Isotta – Mia Karlsson
Carlotta – Ann-Kristin Jones
Morbio – Åke Zetterström
Vanuzzi – Mats Almgren
Farfallo – Nils Gustén

After nearly 90 years Richard Strauss’s Die schweigsame Frau has finally landed in Sweden. Banned by the Nazis after only three performances in Dresden because of Strauss’s refusal to remove the name of his librettist Stefan Zweig from the posters, this comedy had a sparse performance history for many years but interest in it has reawakened in Germany, in part due to Barrie Kosky’s much-revived production at the Bavarian State Opera. It is this production which has travelled to Gothenburg to be the opera’s Swedish premiere.

Though the story is taken from the same Ben Jonson play that inspired Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and the theme of the younger generation playing tricks on a buffoonish old man is familiar in Verdi’s Falstaff among many other operas, Zweig’s libretto makes grumpy old Sir Morosus much more sympathetic than I had expected. The humour has a definite British dryness and irony too, appropriately enough given the opera’s British setting.

The chief schemer was the Barber, played with panache by Hannes Öberg (who not long ago put in a superb performance as the Barber of Seville reviewed by me on this site). Öberg’s sense of comedy was superb and he delivered the substantial spoken sections of his part in fluent German, but his warm and supple baritone was a particular delight. He was smoothly convincing as a suave manipulator of Sir Morosus. Sir Morosus’s unfortunate housekeeper (Katarina Giotas) does not seem to have got much sympathy from the librettist, but Giotas did a good job bringing humanity to her character as well as showing her character’s foibles.

Sir Morosus himself is a richly drawn character, more than just an old curmudgeon. Anders Lorentzson’s nuanced bass-baritone beautifully expressed the many sides of the old naval officer’s character – from his rages to his loneliness and then wonderment at finding what he thinks is the perfect wife. The costumer (Esther Bialas) was less sympathetic, dressing Sir Morosus in a grubby vest and boxer shorts for Act I (in later acts he was at least upgraded to natty sky-blue pyjamas and – for his wedding – white tie and tails).

Act I quickly called on all the facets of Sir Morosus’s character, as his nephew Henry (Eleazar Rodríguez) turned up and was welcomed enthusiastically to Sir Morosus’s home and inheritance – until Henry explained that he was now an opera singer with a touring opera company, which preceded to make a stunning entrance. Here Kosky and Bialas pulled out all the stops, with the opera company dressed in a stunning variety of costumes (I quickly lost count of the various operatic characters referenced). The finale of Act I was an intense burst of colour and music, so much so that Sir Morosus escaped into his cellar!

Sir Morosus (Anders Lorentzson) and Aminta/Timidia (Sofie Asplund) © Lennart Sjöberg

Eleazar Rodríguez was charming as Henry Morosus, with a beautiful light tenor that was perfect for romantic duets with Sofie Asplund’s Aminta but a bit underpowered for the big ensembles. His acting however was convincing in showing the bad boy streak in his character as well as his sweetness. Asplund’s soprano made Aminta spellbinding when she sang and with its overtones was more comfortable in the ensembles than her Rodríguez’s tenor. Asplund’s acting was also spot on, turning herself into ‘Timidia’ at first with conviction but then showing how Aminta develops doubts at playing such a nasty trick on a man she realises is lonely and vulnerable. But once she overcame those doubts, she was a veritable terror, including in the gloriously farcical divorce trial in the last act.

The other members of the touring opera troupe all showed great comic skill too. Mia Karlsson’s Isotta was a powerful stage presence and voice and was hilarious as a chatterbox (one of the three girls introduced to Sir Morosus by the Barber as marriage material in the second act) who left Sir Morosus nearly shell-shocked. Ann-Kristin Jones’s Carlotta made an even more extreme transformation into a country bumpkin – from Sweden, saying her lines in very rural Swedish, whilst the rest of the opera was in German – in the same scene. Morbio (Åke Zetterström) and Vanuzzi (Mats Almgren) made a great duo, both in officiating at the sham wedding but most of all as hilarious ‘Lord Chief Justices’ in the divorce court scene. Their combination of song and mime was brilliant. Farfallo (Nils Gustén) had more of a supporting role until he got to perform in drag as ‘Timidia’s’ singing teacher in Act III which he did with great aplomb.

The combination of visual overload and musical chaos sometimes felt too much, until I realised that it helps the audience understand Sir Morosus’s hatred of loud noises. It certainly made the quieter scenes all the more exquisite by contrast. The third act in particular communicated the old man’s desperation wonderfully with the cacophony of pink that Aminta/Timidia brought into his home and with an impressive cascade of coins from the set symbolising how she was spending his money like water.

Yoel Gamzou conducted the Gothenburg Opera Orchestra with energy but also sensitivity, especially in the scenes where Strauss’s orchestration was more transparent than usual. Gamzou writes in the programme that Strauss was above all a storyteller and that his music serves to support and heighten the story much like film music. Indeed, Die schweigsame Frau does not have any showstopping arias or tunes that you will whistle on your way home, but the music really brings out the character’s emotions and development. For me the most beautiful moments where the most contemplative ones, such as the reconciliation and Sir Morosus’s realisation that he has never felt so alive as after the enormous trick played on him. Anders Lorentzson’s wise and sensitive delivery of Stefan Zweig’s beautiful final lines on a life well-lived will stay with me for a long time.

Niklas Smith

Playing until 6 April. Tickets and more information at the Gothenburg Opera website (click here). The premiere was broadcast live on Swedish Radio and is available to stream within 30 days here and in the SR Play app.

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