Richard Strauss - Die Frau ohne Schatten
Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich - 2013
Kirill Petrenko, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Johan Botha, Adrianne Pieczonka, Deborah Polaski, Elena Pankratova, Wolfgang Koch, Sebastian Holecek, Eri Nakamura, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, Dean Power, Okka von der Damerau, Tim Kuypers, Christian Rieger, Matthew Peña, Laura Tatulescu, Tara Erraught, Heike Grötzinger, Andrea Borghini, RafaI Pawnuk, Leonard Bernad, Iulia Maria Dan
Staatsoper.TV Live Internet Streaming - 1st December 2013
Die Frau ohne Schatten is notoriously one of the most difficult works to stage, the fairytale setting having some directions that are near-impossible to depict conventionally, including frying fish that lament with the Voices of Unborn Children, earthquakes and magically appearing fountains. Even the most basic idea behind the opera - a woman who doesn't cast a shadow - is not an easy thing to achieve credibly on a lighted stage. Inevitably then, directors are required to be somewhat creative in their approach, without losing the necessary otherworldly quality of the work.
Directing Richard Strauss's epic work for the Bavarian State Opera, Krzysztof Warlikowski is not a director short of ideas, one who can always be relied upon for creative and unconventional approaches to opera staging, particularly for a work as rich in imagery and ideas as Die Frau ohne Schatten. Considering that much of the work's fairytale symbolism is based on Strauss and Hofmannsthal's interest in the Freudian theories and psychoanalysis it's not uncommon for productions to use a similar method to explore the underlying meanings and subtexts to be found in the opera, so it's not surprising that a director like Warlikowski finds the work to be fertile ground for a number of ideas.
The Munich production of Die Frau ohne Schatten then, unsurprisingly, doesn't take place in a fairytale world, but rather in a more modern setting that relates to the mindset of the Empress, daughter of Keikobad, the Woman without a Shadow. When they descend from the Spirit Realm down to Earth then in search of a shadow, the Nurse and the Empress seem to take an elevator from the upper level of a luxury apartment building into the basement where Barak the dyer and his wife do the laundry. It's not a literal descent however - it's certainly not enough to make the fairytale storyline "real" - but rather there's a suggestion that the Nurse is using her powers (hypnosis? psychoanalysis?) to force the Empress (who is often seen lying on a couch) to confront her deepest fears and get in touch with her inner self.
This is certainly a valid interpretation of Die Frau ohne Schatten, if somewhat unimaginative for a director like Krzysztof Warlikowski. We already know the Empress has an inner life - she's a gazelle in the form of a woman - while her lack of a shadow moreover is clearly a description of her inability to bear children. Here, as elsewhere, Warlikowski's production emphasises greatly the deep female desires and anxieties related to sexuality, childbearing and motherhood that can be read from the work. The Dyer's wife in particular, granted fulfilment of a life of luxury by the Nurse in exchange for her shadow (and thus liberated from the ability to conceive), can be seen indulging her wildest fantasies with semi-naked handsome young men, some of them wearing falcon heads.
The men in Die Frau ohne Schatten are depicted as being well-meaning but essentially one-note - the childless Emperor caught up in his obsession with his red falcon and with hunting (which you could interpret as a desire for 'death'), Barak with rather more basic urges, frustrated by the inattention of his wife and his banishment from the marital bed once the Wife has agreed to the Nurse's terms in trade for her shadow. The male perspective is an under-explored avenue of the work, but it's not one that interests Warlikowski. The director certainly finds imaginative imagery that rivals Hofmannsthal's to depict the situation of men who are unable to find fulfilment in their female partners, but the men are still mostly sidelined here.
Perhaps more surprisingly for this director is the fall-back onto one of the old familiar tricks that are commonly used when a dramatic situation appears too exaggerated to depict literally. You can either create the necessary distance by making it a play-within-a-play, or you can set it as the deranged imaginings of a character in an asylum for the insane. As becomes clear in the later part of the production - and in keeping with the psychologist's couch origin - Warlikowski goes for the asylum option, with the Nurse eventually being the one put into a straight-jacket. It's a disappointing reading of the work, particularly when we have recently had such a radical interpretation of this opera from Christoph Loy at Salzburg, seeing the 1919 work as a lament for Unborn Children of the Dead during the Great War, with those feelings reawakened through its setting during the post-WWII Karl Bohm recording sessions of the opera.
If Warlikowski's interpretation doesn't engage the mind and the imagination quite as much, the Munich production nonetheless is at least a feast for the eyes and the ears, and it's not without some bizarrely surreal imagery and a few characteristically clever touches. The sets are extravagant in terms of their being so much going on. There's a gazelle on the stage which 'gives birth' to a young child in red, all of which opens out other impressions of the nature of the Empress. Lights, colour and projections also define the divisions between reality and fantasy, with plenty of objects that serve literal and symbolic purposes - a bed, an elevator, a fish tank - and supernumeraries wearing animal and falcon heads. The director's response to the challenges of the stage directions is occasionally inspired, such as when an asylum nurse places a glass of water in front of the Empress rather than a Fountain of Life appearing.
Much of imagery can be nearly unfathomable other than for setting mood and tone (a five minute prelude of scenes from Alain Resnais' 'Last Year at Marienbad' precedes the opening and the ending has projections of Batman, Marilyn Monroe and Gandhi), but the use of the stage is nonetheless magnificent. Die Frau ohne Schatten is an extravagant work - over-indulgent perhaps, confused and confusing even - but it demands this kind of imaginative and impressive response. There is consequently never a dull moment here, always something of interest going on somewhere on the stage, in the lighting, in the projections, in the colour, in the props, in the movements. As the debut for the new house music director, Kirill Petrenko, this was also a case of rising to the occasion. There's little shimmering delicacy for Strauss's lush arrangements here, rather an emphasis on the dark undercurrents that are powerfully drawn out from the immense orchestration.
Most importantly however, the characters are well-defined in terms of personalities and the performers are well-coached by the director to respond to the situations and to each other. Warlikowski gives them context to bring these elusive characters to life, but the singers still have a considerable amount to bring to the production as well. Die Frau ohne Schatten has a (deserved) reputation for being difficult to cast five strong singers in the exceptionally demanding main roles, and the cast assembled here are terrific. As a complete performance and in how she is such a vital component of this particular production as the arch-manipulator, Deborah Polaski's Nurse injects real personality here and sings marvellously as well. Adrianne Pieczonka's Empress is luxuriously voiced and Elena Pankratova is impressive as the Dyer's Wife. Wolfgang Koch doesn't have a big voice, but again is very capable in this role. Johan Botha is also in fine voice as the Emperor. It's perhaps not as rich in timbre as it once was and he doesn't make as much of an impact here when strong acting is required, but Botha can still sing this role with ease.