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Monday 17 March 2014

Die Frau Ohne Schatten at the ROH


17/03/14 - some corrections and comments have been made for the second night performance, altogether a better experience.

Die Frau Ohne Schatten is one of those cultish operas that is a bit of an event when it is staged, because it's not quite standard repertoire, has the moniker of "Strauss's most ambitious opera", and is difficult to work out musically and philosophically, though many make great claims for it. Few would yield to me in my love of Strauss, but that shadowy cadre of Straussians for whom bigger is better, who claim that Die Frau Ohne Schatten is "Strauss's greatest opera", are in my opinion very mistaken. Robin Holloway has written brilliantly about this fascinating opera and calls this attitude "taking the will for the deed" i.e. accepting the lofty intentions of the creators as the measure of the worth of a work, rather than evaluating the actual artwork that lies in front of our senses and critical faculties. If Der Rosenkavalier is Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Figaro, a bittersweet comedy that inhabits a bustling, full, social world, Die Frau Ohne Schatten was intended as their Magic Flute - a fairy tale parable with a transcendent message. It is set in a mystical world with two couples - one "high", one "low", there are mysterious gods, trials, and an improving moral. But the purity and charm of Die Zauberflote has been inflated by Wagner (without capturing his breadth and depth), and Hofmannsthal has inadvertently imitated all the worst parts of Die Zauberflote without also mirroring its felicities - the illogical plot that falls to pieces in the second half, the blandly unfinished characters (apart from Papageno), the removal of personal agency by the much put upon "higher powers" that undermine the characters' choices. On the other hand, Die Frau Ohne Schatten is a sort of travesty (in the literary sense) of a Wagner opera. Superficially there are lots of similar elements - slow psychological action, leitmotifs, enormous voices, bigger orchestra, overtly philosophical in feel. But unlike Wagner there's no tension, no drama - the symbolism is empty and (ironically) unpregnant, the libretto fails to make a drama of Hofmannsthal's subject matter, the scenario self consciously epic but lacking in specificity and therefore bland and only psuedo profound.

Many an opera has survived a questionable libretto, but Strauss struggled to respond to the text, and the result, as always with Strauss when he isn't fully engaged, resorts to note spinning, professional grade glitter and splurge, music written by the yard with ceaseless energy, expertise, mastery even, but lacking true inspiration. During its composition he wrote as much to Hofmannsthal: "I'm toiling really hard, sifting and sifting - my heart's only half in it, and once the head has to do the major part of the work you get the breath of academic chill which no bellows can ever kindle into a real fire." At the same time Strauss, having just produced four operatic masterpieces (flawed or otherwise), was at the height of his stupendous technical powers and so there are of course passages of wondrous beauty and brilliance. The opening half hour contains the opera's best music by some distance and is consistently inspired. The end of Act I is also extremely beautiful and almost convinces that it is of commensurate quality. The opening imprisonment scene of Act III is also quite extraordinary and then moments in the remainder of that act make one marvel. But the end is banal, inflated and leaden, sugar cream and glitter masquerading as fulfilment and sublimity. Again Holloway hits the nail on the head when he says "The use of extreme intervals, in Act III especially, can epitomise the discrepancy between will and deed. They are literally attempts to soar out of the habitual, but they don't sear and hurt like comparable places in Bruckner 9 , Kundry's music or Mahler 10 (to say nothing of early Schoenberg) because the harmony is basically bland." This encapsulates the problem for me - the blandness of the harmony means the work lacks form, shape, momentum and contrast and no extremities of colour, pitch, volume, however vehement, can rescue it.

Claus Guth struggles to make any sort of statement with the piece, obfuscating the already limping dramatic frame with a jejune hospital sequence opening, and, incredibly, a final scene where the Empress wakes up and "it was all a dream". The Empress writhes with night terrors in the opening scene and seems to be in extreme psychological anguish, though we're not sure why. Then her nurse cooks up this fantastical story for her (in the dream? as a bed time story? as a therapist?), and continues to pull all the strings throughout the opera in the guise of a cartoonily gothic, rocky horror demon. There's lots of playing with doubles and mirror images as the Empress empathises with the Dyer's Wife (or rather the Dyer's wife is a projection of her own insecurities), after the bed ridden descent to the earth, which confirms that the opera in this production is in fact all a delusion of the Empress. Guth runs out of interpretive ideas and the concept becomes more tenuous and ever less probing as the story churns on into Act II, several decisive plot points lacking any obvious motivation or on stage stimulus (e.g. the Emperor deciding he has to kill his wife, the total changes of character in the Dyer's wife, the reason for the nurse's punishment). This can be chalked up to "dream logic" but it feels lazy and doesn't make for satisfying viewing since we don't know what The Empress is so cut up about in Act I and what all these Freudian images are a reflection of in the waking world. Add to this copious sexual imagery (pleasure/pain at being penetration by a husband's spear, sperm like "fishes" as the voices of the unborn children) and an embarrassingly literal physical rendering of the wounded gazelles that we are told about in Act I who return wherever there is an orchestral interlude, and we get a hodge-podge of sophomoric story telling that fails to congeal into a convincing whole for even a moment. The set designs by Christian Schmidt are unsuggestive and characterless - a curving wooden wall with a rotating panel at the back - which neither conjure the hospital "real world" or the dreamy fantasy world with any force or specificity.

In a sense it seems like the two central soprano roles have been cast the wrong way round. Elena Pankratova's smooth, silvery sound seems much more apt for the supernatural, insubstantial Empress, whose vocal writing also requires more flexibility. Emily Magee's earthy, heavy, solid voice seems more apt for the earthbound Dyer's wife, though the lack of a working chest register is less of a handicap in the Empress, the role she was hired for. Both Pankratova and Magee seemed a little out of sorts in Act I, though they both warmed up considerably for the more strenuous later acts. Pankratova's voice is very pleasing: strong in all registers, and with good German diction, famously difficult for Russians. [On the second night she was even better, dispatching some truly magnificent singing in the ridiculously demanding second act - soaring lines of extraordinary power without losing the fundamental silkyness. A very different singer from Goerke, but in her own way just as good, and she is surely one of the very best singing today in her vocal category. Special to witness and I'd love to see her in another Strauss or Wagner role.] Magee was less convincing I thought as the vocal production sounds very effortful with the line constantly broken to change register, or reach a high note, which happens constantly in this high lying role, though she got a very large ovation, so many obviously disagree with my assessment. Acting wise she was hammy and there was very rarely a feeling of true connection with the character. The one exception was the moment in Act I when she wasn't singing and was sitting next to the Dyer's wife. The production can't have helped any of them to create a sense of connection with their characters though as all performances felt rather on the surface acting wise.

Michaela Schuster has a very exciting, juicy mezzo, very resonant and powerful through her whole range, and does a good job of the Amme's extremely angular vocal lines. The voice slipped off the breath quite regularly though during quiet singing which lead to some lumpy phrases, and though she is a German native I understood only four words she sang in the entire evening. Quite strange, as this was vocally the total opposite of her recent ROH Klytemnestra. A compelling singer though. Johann Botha does his normal thing: mullet, goatee, park and bark come fitted as standard, but he is one of the very few heldentenors who can sustain the very high "Lohengrin" tessitura of the big Strauss roles. I don't think it's a particularly beautiful voice, and there's not much variation in timbre or care for text, but the stainless steel edge seems to expand to unlimited volume and with endless stamina - hard to complain too much in this role. Johan Reuter did very well as Barak, the voice large and the delivery committed, and on the second night he dispatched his lines with naturalness and ease. David Butt Philip deserves a special mention for his very good singing in the small role of the Apparition of Youth - he's a Jette Parker Young Artists that seems to be well above the normal standard.

Semyon Bychkov conducts the ROH orchestra with assurance through this gargantuan maze of a score. He still can't sell the pages and pages of gilded slag, but he stirs up a tremendous din when required and it flows along well enough. I'm not quite as sold on his Strauss conducting as many seem to be - I find that the line is often lost in the stolid harmonic firmness, and though the sound is very ripe, it rarely has that inner warmth and luminescence that the very greatest Strauss conducting achieves. He's obviously still very good! On the first night the ROH orchestra were not quite on best form in this tremendously demanding music, with quite a few moments of coarse musicianship in the solo playing - this is still Vienniese music and it needs that seamless elegance and refined beauty in the quieter moments. [On the second night the finale was given a much better shape and all five central singers seemed much more secure. A better all round performance]

All in all, despite many enjoyable moments of music making and some very exciting singing, this was a bit of a disappointing evening that failed to make light of this tricky work.


  1. It's a shame you didn't enjoy it as it sounded very promising. I personally love die frau ohne schatten. I have a question. What is your opinion of Cheryl studer. She's my favorite empress and superb as Salome and in elektra. I think she's prefect for Strauss. Do you have an opinion?

  2. Studer is by some distance my favourite Salome on record, and Sinopoli's wonderful conducting makes that set one of the jewels of the Straussian recording legacy. Surely her finest recording. For this reason I got the recording of her in Die Frau Ohne Schatten and I must say that I was not as impressed - I much preferred the crystalline intensity of Varady on the Solti set. It might be time to give the Studer set another go however...

  3. Watch the Solti video with her. She's even finer

  4. You should also listen to inga nielsen as Salome!

  5. The Solti video I watched even longer ago, but recently purchased it again, so actually already had plans to watch it very soon. Thanks for he Inga Nielsen tip - will check her out as well.

  6. Thanks for the Nielsen tip - just wonderful! Salome sung as if it is Lieder repertoire. She's wonderful too in Mozart and Massenet it transpires. Can't thank you enough!

    Her Erwartung (which she sang at covent garden) is unreal. And she's a wonderful Fidelio