Richard Strauss - Die schweigsame Frau
Bayerische Staatsoper, 2014
Pedro Halffter, Barrie Kosky, Franz Hawlata, Okka von der Damerau, Nikolay Borchev, Daniel Behle, Brenda Rae, Elsa Benoit, Tara Erraught, Christian Rieger, Christoph Stephinger, Tareq Nazmi
Staatsoper.TV - 5 October 2014
There are a few subjects or themes that appear regularly in the operas of Richard Strauss, and sometimes even within his other tone poems and orchestral works. One of them is family life, as seen in his Symphonia Domestica and in the closely autobiographical opera, Intermezzo. Another recurrent theme in Strauss' work is around opera itself and the nature of being a composer. This self-referential subject is most evident in Ein Heldenleben, Feuersnot, Aridane auf Naxos and Capriccio, but there are also self-referential elements in the music and treatments of Der Rosenkavalier and Der Liebe der Danae.
All of these familiar themes are there to one extent or another (depending how much emphasis a director wants to give them) in Die schweigsame Frau ('The Silent Woman'). Considering that Strauss was married - albeit happily - to a woman who by all reports was very difficult to live with, the idea of being married to a silent woman was perhaps one that Strauss found amusing to contemplate. It certainly makes a fine subject for an entertaining but relatively light comic opera, but the musical treatment by Strauss is typically sensitive and beautifully orchestrated in a way that draws out other qualities and characteristics from the subject. These are brought out wonderfully in the Bayerische Staatsoper's production directed by Barrie Kosky and conducted by Pedro Halffter.
The first thing a director has to recognise about Die schweigsame Frau is that in addition to the family matters that dominate the subject, the work is also very much an opera about opera. Set in England, the subject of Die schweigsame Frau resembles Verdi's Falstaff in it being about an old and somewhat past-it knight, Sir Morosus, who is encouraged by one of his servants, the barber Master Cutbeard, to get himself a wife. Morosus however can't bear to have women about him and despises their chatter. In his 46 years as a sailor travelling around the world, the only silent woman in his experience is one who is "in the churchyard and under a stone cross". His housekeeper is torment enough, but a wife in the house would have him in a coffin within three weeks.
When his son Henry returns from the dead however, bringing with him a loud wife and a noisy opera company that he has joined, Morosus considers that it would be better to marry in order to disinherit his son and the raucous company he keeps, but who would marry an old man like himself? Somewhere between The Barber of Seville and Don Pasquale (it's worth noting that alongside Falstaff, the three comic operas referenced here are perhaps the three finest comic operas ever written, barring Mozart's work, but that too is referenced elsewhere), Sir Morosus' barber hatches a plot to trick the old man into a sham marriage, rescuing the inheritance for Henry, and perhaps winning the old man over to a realistic acceptance of the idea of married life.
Well, realistically that's not going to happen, and the authors recognise this. Instead, what Strauss manages to do - the music being particularly instrumental in how successfully this is achieved - is reform Morosus' view of the world and the audience's view of Morosus. Over the course of Die schweigsame Frau, he becomes wonderfully human. Even though he is being set-up, with three members of the opera troupe being offered as potential brides in a sham marriage, Morosus is nonetheless moved that a beautiful woman would even consider marrying an old man like himself. Timidia, who is Henry's wife Aminta playing a role, is herself moved somewhat by how the old man is stirred into love and begins to understand that happiness isn't necessary something elusive.
The fact that the emotions are stirred by something "fake" isn't an issue. The role-playing is just another example in the Strauss canon, of how the "artificial" construction of art, music and opera can inspire genuine feelings and suggest possibilities that one might not otherwise be open to in "real-life". To do that successfully, of course, the opera and the music must itself be good, and with Strauss, that's something that is never in any doubt. Act II culminates in the most beautiful sextet that is typically Straussian in the soaring beauty of its orchestration, but worthy of Mozart (who is the model for this kind of scene evidently, and a model that Rossini often emulated) in how it draws together sentiments of nobility, sadness and humanity, even within a comic situation.
Despite its qualities, Die schweigsame Frau wasn't a success when it was first performed and it has rarely been revived over the years. Much of the opera's troubled history stems from the fact that it was banned by the Nazis in 1936 after only three performances. This was less to do with any controversy surrounding the subject of the work than the fact that Strauss worked with a Jewish writer, Stefan Zweig, on the libretto. Even after the war, there was little appetite for this Strauss comedy, or indeed for much the lush orchestration and frivolous subjects that seemed increasingly out of touch with developments in 20th century music, and Die schweigsame Frau is consequently one of those latter works by the composer that is rarely performed and has subsequently fallen into obscurity.
In the year of Strauss's 150th anniversary however, Munich's Bayerische Staatsoper's new production of Die schweigsame Frau gives this neglected work a welcome revival and they've done rather well by it. For much of the first two acts, and much of the third also, the set consists of nothing more than a raised platform on the stage, with a bed the only real prop. Barrie Kosky however lets the characters and the music fill out everything that is essential in the work. Or rather, the conductor Pedro Halffter ensures that the full impact of Strauss's orchestration serves the comic drama and the underlying human sentiments, while Kosky draws out the typically Strauss themes and references, most notably in how the Henry's opera troupe are all dressed as famous opera characters.
It might have been better to dress Tara Erraught as Mariandel here rather than Violetta, since her character plays the same type of plain-speaking, forward country-girl when introduced as one of Morosus' potential wives, but I can think of at least one good reason not to go in that direction (fun and appropriately opera self-referential as it might have been), but there's no reason to over-complicate the work with too much cleverness - the work is strong enough to work on its own terms. Act III opens up the stage a little more when Timidia starts transforming the house and start spending the money which drops down like rain as the platform opens up. It's a simple and effective direction that gets the essentials across.
The production is also very well served by the cast. Like most Strauss operas, the principal soprano role is exceedingly challenging, and Aminta/Timidia is no exception. Brenda Rae has to hold some very high notes indeed, and she does so impressively, her performance in the dual role moreover wonderfully engaging. The lower end of the bass tessitura for Sir Morosus is no less challenging, and in many respects, the role can be just as rewarding as Baron Ochs von Lerchenau. Perhaps that's just because Franz Hawlata sang it so well here and, just as importantly, recognised and brought out the different human facets of his character. As mentioned above, Tara Erraught's soaring mezzo-soprano made a noticeable impact, but there were equally strong performances and singing from Nikolay Borchev as the barber and Daniel Behle as Henry.
This was a wonderful start to the new season of live steamed broadcasts at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich. In an anniversary year where we've been treated to plenty of Der Rosenkavaliers, Ariadnes and even an unusual amount of Die Frau ohne Schatten productions, this is an ambitious and pleasantly successful venture into lesser explored but eminently worthy Richard Strauss territory.