Thielemann and Die Frau ohne Schatten make a strong impression in Dresden

GermanyGermany R. Strauss, Die Frau ohne Schatten: Soloists, Children’s Chorus (director: Claudia Sebastian-Bertsch) and Chorus of the Semperoper Dresden, Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden / Christian Thielemann (conductor). Semperoper, Dresden, 27.3.2024. (MB)

Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten © Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah

Dresden opened its week-and-a-half Richard Strauss-Tage with David Bösch’s new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten, premiered a few days previously, then as now under Christian Thielemann’s baton and with an excellent cast. By the very nature of the work, it tends to attract, if not quite only then preponderantly, fine performances; its forces imply a season highlight or festival outing. That said, it has attracted a variety of directorial approaches, some more convincing than others. At the least convincing extreme stands Christof Loy’s arrogant, disdainful, absurdly reductive effort for Salzburg (review here), also conducted (outstandingly) by Thielemann. I am not sure I have seen a production of anything that engaged less with the work in question — although, to give Loy his due, he imperiously announced that he would not, since he did not care for it. Otherwise, some will heighten the work’s ritualistic tendencies, perhaps at expense of its complex symbolism. Some will adopt a Freudian approach. Some – many would say this was true of the work – will prove more perplexing than anything else. Bösch’s has something of these tendencies, whilst for the most part telling the story as clearly as any I can recall.

That is far from a bad thing, especially in a work of this complexity, though it immediately raises the question: ‘whose story? Hofmannsthal’s or Strauss’s?’ What, if I am understanding correctly, Bösch does suggest is a contest between two worlds, not so much those of the born and unborn, as between heaven and earth, fantasy and reality, even sleep and waking. Set designs, costumes, and lighting create and contribute to this: a silken world of sheets and dreams leading, via a grim, even grimy portal, to the workshop-cum-living quarters of a modern-day dyer – washing machine and all – and his wife. And so, when both couples are transformed by their trials, so as to find a world of greater happiness in the third act, it is not only one of procreation, but of broader fulfilment, acceptance, and happiness. When all threatens to collapse into bathos with the Emperor and Empress welcoming children who seem to have wandered in from a school play, it is (at least for me) rescued by this broadening of focus.

Hofmannsthal’s central ‘message’ – it is surely not the only one, but I do not think we can simply ignore it either – is of course a troubling one to many of us. We can understand it more broadly in terms of valuing life at a time when so many were being lost in the Great War, but we cannot convert it entirely into that. Like it or not, pronatalism is there; so is decided inequality between the sexes; so is heteronormativity; so are many things in which many of us no longer believe. If the two couples meeting again ‘on earth’ as friends for a few drinks might seem banal, then something needs to be done here, and there are surely worse alternatives.

There are powerful moments: as when – perhaps unconsciously echoing Wagner’s Die Feen, for whose belated first performance the young Strauss acted as assistant conductor – the Dyer’s Wife picks up a baby (doll) and casts it into grisly oblivion. At the beginning of the third act, a television-watching Barak living a separate, miserable existence from his wife in separate, separated rooms, told a powerful tale simply and with great human sympathy. Although I have not seen the film, I could not help but wonder whether flooding the stage with pink – in general, coloured lighting was a great strength – was a reference to the fantasy worlds of Barbie and Ken. A selection of beautiful, youthly, apparently identical apparitions from which the Dyer’s Wife could choose was a nice touch: consonant also with a clue in the libretto. I was not wild about the appearance onstage of a giant falcon, though the kitsch seemed knowing.

[Front centre] Camilla Nylund (Empress) and Evelyn Herlitzius (Nurse) © Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah

Likewise, some of the video imagery seemed to me superfluous, though I am doubtless speaking as much of my own taste as anything more definite. It is difficult to imagine anyone finding nothing here to spark engagement, just as doubtless many of us will have our cavils. (The idiot booing at the close was presumably an exception.) Literally breaking up the scene, the turn to ‘reality’ itself a bourgeois fantasy, is a crucial moment, returning us to the ambiguous world of the Nurse, who tellingly also seems broken by the experience. What might have been unduly reductive proves ultimately to question itself – and us – too.

What surprised me was how different Thielemann’s reading seemed from that Salzburg performance. Perhaps on account of the oft-noted ‘narrowness’ of his repertoire, which can be exaggerated, he is rarely a conductor to step twice in the same interpretative river. Where once he had gloried in the full throttle of Strauss’s huge orchestra, now he was far more sparing in unleashing it. This was a highly lyrical account, in the outstanding, never-erring Staatskapelle Dresden at least as much as onstage. Much might have been chamber music, though there was also a greater affinity, not unlike Kirill Petrenko in Munich, albeit softer, more soloistic, with the harmonic world of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, Op.16. It is here, surely, that Strauss comes closest to Schoenberg, as opposed to vice versa (ironically, given what by now he was saying about the composer to whom, not so long before, he had proved commendably generous). If I missed something of the extraordinary, grinding dissonance Thielemann conjured in his Vienna Philharmonic recording of the Fantasy on themes from the opera, I always do. Here, like the Dyer and his Wife, he had different fish to fry.

There was an almost Karajan-like sense of line to the performance as a whole, characterised by enormous variation in tempo as well as dynamics. I do not think I have ever heard the close of the first act so beautifully, wondrously drawn out: luminous and, in context, both otherworldly and worldly. It seemed to capture musically the clash between Hofmannsthal’s message, via the Nightwatchmen’s words, and Strauss’s scepticism, adopting that ‘beautiful’ yet, through his Nietzschean materialism, strangely empty ‘holiness’ Strauss tends towards when setting anything approaching the Christian (or even transcendental). One might think of Salome’s John the Baptist here, or a song such as Allerseelen. Yet I found it deeply moving, albeit intriguingly as if it were delivered in a dream-like moment of temporal suspension and/or manipulation. The close of the second act, often a thrilling, even terrifying climax, here seemed to function more as a summary of what had already happened, the Nurse’s ‘Übermächte sind im Spiel’ delivered in kind. Musical dramaturgy, then, was often unusual, yet never arbitrary. Thielemann had clearly considered his approach carefully.

Vocal performances were, of course, part and parcel of all the above, and suggested similarly careful casting in a combination of celebrated exponents and newer comers. I cannot recall hearing an Emperor less strained than Eric Cutler. This doubtless had something to do with Thielemann’s new penchant for orchestral softness and lyricism, but also surely reflected Cutler’s own, more bel canto approach. It put me a little in mind of Boulez casting Chris Merritt in Moses und Aron. His relationship with the Empress, Camilla Nylund, was unquestionably a real one: no mere representation of something symbolic. Nylund rarely if ever disappoints; nor did she here, in a wonderfully human portrayal, which held in reserve great vocal power when called upon, yet impressed equally in more sensitive mode. One might say much the same of Oleksandr Pushniak as Barak and Mina-Liisa Värelä as the Dyer’s Wife, their acting equally impressive — and moving. As for Evelyn Herlitzius, her voice instantly recognisable, her total dramatic commitment hardly less so, I doubt there are many artists who have sung both this and the Dyer’s Wife. This, though, was unquestionably a world and a character she could completely inhabit. Andreas Bauer Kanabas made a strong impression as the Spirit-Messenger. Choral and ensemble parts were all very well taken. There was no weak link, but rather a multitude of musical, dramatic, and musicodramatic strands one could follow: not necessarily so as to answer any questions, but rather to pose a few more. In this work, there are too many conflicts simply to be resolved.

Mark Berry

Director – David Bösch
Set designs – Patrick Bannwart
Costumes – Moana Stemberger
Lighting – Fabio Antoci
Video – Falko Herold, Patrick Bannwart
Dramaturgy – Johann Casimir Eule
Chorus director – André Kellinghaus

Emperor – Eric Cutler
Empress – Camilla Nylund
Nurse – Evelyn Herlitzius
Spirit-Messenger – Andreas Bauer Kanabas
Barak – Oleksandr Pushniak
Dyer’s Wife – Mina-Liisa Värelä
Apparition of Youth – Martin Mitterrutzner
Voice of the Falcon – Lea-ann Dunbar
Voice from Above – Christa Mayer
Guardian of the Threshold of the Temple – Nikola Hillebrand
The One-Eyed – Rafael Fingerlos
The One-Armed – Tilmann Rönnebeck
The Hunchback – Tansel Akzeyebek
Children’s Voices – Nikola Hillebrand, Sofia Savenko, Lea-ann Dunbar, Stephanie Atanasov, Dominika Škrabalová, Michal Doron
Servants – Bryndis Gudjonsdottir, Sofia Savenko, Dominika Škrabalová

Leave a Comment