Richard Strauss - Die Frau ohne Schatten
Wiener Staatsoper, 2019
Christian Thielemann, Vincent Huguet, Camilla Nylund, Nina Stemme, Evelyn Herlitzius, Wolfgang Koch, Stephen Gould, Wolfgang Bankl
Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 25 May 2019
It's not difficult to see what is attractive about the Vienna State Opera's production of Die Frau ohne Schatten. Of course any performance of Richard Strauss's glorious epic masterwork is alone reason enough, but in this case there is also the chance to hear it conducted by Christian Thielemann who you can be sure will provide at the very least a precise, detailed and soaring interpretation of the work. The opportunity of to see Evelyn Herlitzius, Nina Stemme and Camilla Nylund working together, three of the leading ladies of Strauss (and Wagner) of the moment, is also to die for. That's not to mention Stephen Gould and Wolfgang Koch in the other significant roles. Evidently you can expect this to deliver the musical goods, but unfortunately it turns out that the only thing missing in the Vienna production is any shadow of an idea from the director Vincent Huguet how to to make the most of what is available here.
What is most disappointing is that Huguet doesn't find any way to approach a work that is rich in symbolism and ideas, much less find any way to illuminate its mysteries. The subject of a flawed Utopia that runs through the fantastical German opera of this period in the lush seductive creations of Korngold, Schreker and many other post-Wagnerians, reveals a fin de siècle fascination with history and humanity reaching a turning point. There is a magical quality in such works that shows that humanity has the capacity to aspire to be better and change the world, but perhaps with a recognition that inherent weaknesses in human nature will result in a flawed creation. That would at least be the case in later works that may also have had an eye on the direction that Germany was heading in under a regime that would ban their works as 'degenerate', but in 1919, Strauss and Hoffmansthal - taking a lead from Mozart (it's hard to do better) - still had a cautiously optimistic outlook.
There's huge potential for growth exploring this idea on any number of levels within Die Frau ohne Schatten. In the worlds of the Kaiser and Kaiserin and that of the dyer Barak and his wife there are all kinds of contrasts between the high and the low, between the spiritual needs and the physical needs of humanity that could be brought out, but this production doesn't even really succeed in differentiating between these contrasting planes of reality. There is an argument to be made that they are just different facets of the same thing. On one side there's the dyer's wife and her dreams of a more comfortable life fantasising about a love that is perhaps no deeper than physical lust, but her marriage to Barak is lacking more than that. On the other side, in the elevated symbolism of Deer and Falcons, the Emperor and Empress have a deeper spiritual and emotional attachment, but their relationship lacks substance; the Empress has no shadow.
More than just reductively being about fertility, the woman without shadow is woman without an essential part of herself, a woman of no substance. The Empress is admired and adored by the Emperor for a being a magical creature, not a being of substance. The nurse knows where people have shadows and it's down in the misery of the human world. The poor dyer and his wife in fact have rather too much 'substance' and it prevents them from being able to truly love each other on a higher spiritual level. Perhaps that comes through more clearly when it's presented, as it is here, shorn of most of its fantasy elements and symbolism, letting the power of Strauss's music speak for itself. Certainly by the end of Act 1 the chorus that meaning comes across that it's the love of a married couple that can be the bridge that spans the chasm "which the dead cross to return to life". What gives substance is the understanding and acceptance that we are all part of something bigger, physical and spiritual, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, all family, all connected to the past and to a better future.
Perhaps striving more for mood and downplaying any distracting attempt at extravagant fairy-tale imagery, there's consequently a darkness to Vincent Huguet's production as a whole, a shadow hanging over it if you like, the characters each struggling to not be enveloped by it, a dark curtain falling at the end of each scene. Projections are used for effects of rocky outcrops and grottoes, and Act III is set in an impressive causeway of stone columns, all of which brings a real-world earthiness. It feels a little generic in that respect, very much like a leftover set from Elektra or Pelléas et Mélisande, but you can get a sense of the deep underlying forces at work striving to connect it all together. Too much of the opera remains obscure however and it's meaning impenetrable. There's nothing wrong with Die Frau ohne Schatten retaining some or much of its enigma - you can say much the same about the model it aspires to Mozart's Die Zauberflöte - but the opera's huge message of the unifying force of love and brotherhood should be made more explicit.
On a musical level the Wiener Staatsoper production certainly delivers on any prior expectations you might have here. Christian Thielemann's conducting reminds us that beneath the lushness of the extravagant large-scale orchestration lies the same Strauss capable of unleashing the thundering dissonant chords effectively employed in Salome, combining it with the expressive colouration of his tone poems and the elegance and depth of sentiment that is there in the deceptive lightness of Der Rosenkavalier. The performance of the Vienna State Opera orchestra is just amazing, and Thielemann puts them to work harnessing those immense resources to expose all the beauty, detail of the "higher powers" that are expressed in the music.
You really need an all-star cast of tested singers to even think about taking on Die Frau ohne Schatten and they all measure up here. If there are any minor reservations about performance and interpretation, they are likely to be in relation to Evelyn Herlitzius, who has a tendency to head towards shrill and shriek. This is compensated for, as it often is, by her usual committed and charismatic performance. That's in spite of a seeming lack of acting direction that often leaves the performers to their own devices in reactions and interaction, occasionally leaving them standing not knowing what to do. With much of the heavy work being done in the music and in the vocal performances, these are by no means critical issues, but you sense a wasted opportunity.
Regardless of individual performances there's just a lovely contrast between the sound of the voices and expression of Nina Stemme, Camilla Nylund and Evelyn Herlitzius, each distinctive, each well matched to their respective roles, each impressive in meeting the demands of what are extraordinarily challenging roles. Stephen Gould looks like he is starting to feel the strain but he still can carry punishing roles like the Kaiser impressively and Wolfgang Koch is practically synonymous with Barak the dyer in recent years. When it comes to his Act III duet with Stemme and the subsequent healing forces that resolve the opera, it's glorious and emotional, touching on all those gorgeous complex Straussian (and Hoffmansthal-ian) sentiments of love and regret, nostalgia for the past and cautious hopeful optimism for the future.
Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home