Tuesday 28 April 2020

Glass - Einstein on the Beach (Geneva, 2019)

Philip Glass - Einstein on the Beach (Geneva, 2019)

Grand Théâtre de Genève, 2019

Titus Engel, Daniele Finzi Pasca, Jess Gardolin, Stéphane Gentilini, Andrée-Anne Gingras-Roy, Evelyne Laforest, Francesco Lanciotti, David Menes, Marco Paoletti, Félix Salad, Beatriz Sayad, Allegra Spernanzoni, Roland Tarquini, Micol Veglia, Melissa Vettore

GTG Digital

You don't see a new production of Einstein on the Beach in an opera house programme very often but it's always an exciting prospect, even if you imagine that it's going to have a hard time to live up to its original visualisation and collaboration between its creators Philip Glass, Robert Wilson and Lucinda Childs. Glass's most experimental and original opera has already proven it is still a force to be reckoned with in revival, but if Einstein on the Beach is to ever have any kind of extended life - and despite the lasting impression it has made so far its legacy is by no means assured - it needs to be seen whether it can stand up on its own merit without the hand of its creators involved.

Knowing how to approach a new production is an unenviable task because one of the more unusual characteristics of Einstein on the Beach as an opera is that it doesn't exactly have a plot to follow. Despite its unconventionality and lack of adherence to almost any of the rules of what we consider to be essential to opera, it does however have most of the basic components in their purest form. It offers up music as purely music with no relationship to any dramatic or emotional context, it provides drama without a narrative, the words operating as mere text that convey little in the way of meaning, while the stage design and dance are there to provide a visual reference for the space and movement to add another dimension to the music. Einstein on the Beach is intended to be a spectacle for the eyes and the ears, a five-hour flow of rhythm and repetition, the audience invited to enter and leave as they liked. As this was something Philip Glass and his Ensemble were quite used to people walking out of some of their earliest performances, it made sense to make this an acceptable part of his first opera.

Somehow, whether it was the mere fact of hanging this all onto a title like Einstein on the Beach, or some of the imagery that Robert Wilson provided to work in conjunction with the music, the work seemed to acquire a significance of its own. Glass's music does have the ability to establish a strong bond with images, as evidenced by his collaborative efforts with Godfrey Reggio on the soundtrack for Koyaanisqatsi, which this opera is closer to in conception than the other operas in what would become known as the Portrait Trilogy (with Satyagraha and Akhnaten). It captures the pace of modern life, the rhythm of life itself, science, technology, progress, time, the repeated rhythms measuring out the idea of life changing gradually and almost imperceptibly over time but very much changing and gathering pace.

Since there are many ways of expressing that idea, Daniele Finzi Pasca and his company obviously find their own way to explore what Einstein on the Beach means and how it can be developed. The long ten minute opening Prologue, played as the audience are still entering the theatre and taking their seats, consists of three descending notes on an electronic organ repeated with slightly variations in the length, while a woman recites random numbers between 1 and 3000. You can find yourself searching for a pattern, and maybe even find one, but more than anything it creates a trance-like state where the mind is gradually cleansed of any such attempts at rationalisation or search for meaning. It just expects you to accept and appreciate the simplicity of three notes played together with random numbers recited and it is indeed utterly entrancing. A figure dressed like Albert Einstein then joins the woman during the first Knee Play (one of the connecting pieces between scenes) reciting meaningless cut-up text, the chorus then taking up a one-two-three-four repetition that speeds up to Glass's racing rhythms while a red shiny curtain billows behind them.

It sounds completely pointless in description yet utterly entrancing to watch and enter into a receptive rather than passive state that the music creates. This first scene hints that the director Daniele Finzi Pasca is following in the simplicity of Improbable, the production company of Phelim McDermott, a director with a strong affinity for Glass's music who often finds inventive ways of representing it on stage. Finzi Pasca creates a visual language of his own that reacts to the music and sets off other associations rather then rely on Robert Wilson's. There's no 'Train' scene, instead we have Einstein at a desk, dancers, a remote controlled toy plane, and possibly in reference to Vittorio de Sica's Miracle in Milan and Bicycle Thieves there's a floating bike on a wire, a woman in a wedding dress and a groom in white. All of this builds a loose visual narrative that the audience are free to bring together into a meaning of their own.

There's no 'Trial' scene either and some of the libretto monologues are cut or reduced to take the opera down from five hours to four. The 'Mr Bojangles' monologue is recited by a performer within a flickering glow of a rotating spiral array of neon pillars against a deep blue background (the closest this gets to iconic Wilson imagery) with figures moving walking across in slow rhythmic movements, the floating bike reappears as the scene transitions into a badminton game on beach with deck chairs for the 'Paris/All Men Are Equal' scene (although the 'Paris' text is moved to Act 4). A mermaid floats above and it is all observed on the beach by Einstein, which is as close to literal as this interpretation comes, but it also shows that this is a work that has imagery and ideas that are infinitely adaptable.

Any further description of the differences and disconnect between what we might expect to see is rather pointless, as you're doubtless beginning to grasp, since it doesn't illuminate any kind of narrative or conceptual coherence, employing images inspired by the music with no rhyme or reason. Cutting evidently has no real impact on any narrative or meaning, merely swapping some of the irritating nonsense texts for irritating ideas and nonsense of its own. There's no 'House', 'Spaceship' or 'Train' but there are Bullfighters and Buddhist Monks. The Compagnia Finzi Pasca production is what it is; music and visuals, shadow plays, projections, acrobatics, trompe d'oeil and fantastical images with a few recurrent themes mostly involving a kind of transcendental levitation, flying and floating (gravity?). It's not always gripping but that's the nature of this work, you are free to make up your own connections or not as you choose, and you can always (in theory) walk out during the bits when nothing much happens for ages (I zoned out at the appearance of bullfighters in Act 4 'Bed/Aria' here).

Familiarity with the music actually adds another level of fascination as you are anticipating the length of each repeated phrase waiting on the next change to kick in. It still holds you rapt, which when you consider that there is no narrative or meaning to grasp and a lot of repetition, is quite an achievement. That's a testament also to conductor Titus Engel, the orchestra made up of music students of the Haute école du musique de Genève and the indefatigable efforts of the chorus that they are able to keep this together for four hours without a pause. The challenges posed by Einstein on the Beach are like no other and seeing it performed like this really does underline what an incredible achievement it is.

But does the opera have the capacity to be renewed beyond its 1970s origins and outlive its creators? Well, personally I don't think the Geneva production is a patch on Robert Wilson's original, but evidently going ahead it's Wilson's contribution as co-author that is always going to be left behind. Whether there's any life left in Minimalism is a matter in the hands of posterity, but there seems to be little doubt that, as Phelim McDermott has demonstrated for his other operas, Philip Glass's music is capable of inspiring new and creative responses. It's the largely unchanging force behind this enormously original and still totally absorbing work of opera, and yes it still remains opera. Great opera endures and 45 years haven't been bad to Einstein on the Beach.

Links: Grand Théâtre de Genève, GTG Digital

Saturday 25 April 2020

Wagner - Parsifal (Palermo, 2020)

Richard Wagner - Parsifal

Teatro Massimo, Palermo - 2020

Omer Meir Wellber, Graham Vick, Tómas Tómasson, Alexei Tanovitski, John Relyea, Thomas Gazheli, Julian Hubbard, Catherine Hunold

ARTE Concert

The unique nature of Parsifal as a Good Friday celebration, as a consecration for the stage of Bayreuth and as a spiritual journey in its own right, means that there are many ways of exploring it in a stage setting. There's no one way that works better than another but the most effective are those that simultaneously tap into and draw on the work for its unique source of power while also bringing something to it. When it comes to Graham Vick you have a director who is capable of doing just that in his own way, which is in a manner that relates it to the world we see around us. That's not so easy with a work that delves into the philosophical and spiritual and areas of religious mysticism, but Parsifal is a work that remains relevant for all time. Somehow Vick and conductor Omer Meir Welber manage to get all those essential qualities together in this January 2020 production at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, or at least in some places better than other.

You can never tell if it's a good thing with an opera but in the case of Parsifal it's not exactly a disadvantage that you can't immediately see the direction a production is going to take even when a full hour and a half of Act I has elapsed. If it adheres however to the underlying sentiment of the work then it will hold and move you and Vick certainly manages to make you feel viscerally what the opera is all about. It might sound like an excuse but more than anything this is an opera you need to feel before you can understand it. It's no surprise that Vick uses familiar modern military and war imagery for Act 1 as a way of establishing that the world is in the midst of a deep crisis, one that it is badly in need of a saviour, a healing and renewing force. In Act I, more than anything, you can feel the pain. And it's not just Amfortas who is in agony, but Gurnemanz, the knights of the Grail and ultimately Parsifal too who comes to feel their pain and suffering.

The setting of Act I is visually simple and minimalised. There's a sandy-looking floor of chipboard with a canvas screen behind, giving the impression of a contemporary Middle Eastern military base with troops in army uniform and Kundry wearing a burka. Vick doesn't appear to intend to impose any political commentary, he just uses images that you will be familiar with as a way to get through to the idea of pain and feeling compassion. As such, the progression of Act I is straightforward but there are unusual touches that stand out. The first is the very Christ-like image of Amfortas, which isn't anything new he makes the first striking impression here wearing a brutal crown of thorns. Gurnemanz's story of the spear is played out in shadows on the canvas, showing images of war, victory and submission. The procession of troops lining up for the unveiling of the grail is not ineffective for it being a tin cup, as the symbolism of what it stands for is fully felt in Amfortas shedding a blood sacrifice. More than that, the shedding of blood is also endured by the troops/knights who painfully open up cuts on their arms. Set to Wagner's miraculous score, it's an immensely powerful first Act.

I've made no mention of Parsifal in Act I as he is purposely nondescript here, which is no reflection on Julian Hubbard who sings the role well here, but this is not his time, nor space for that matter. He's not even 'Parsifal' yet. That comes in an Act II which when it opens quickly undercuts any sense of Klingsor being an otherworldly agent of evil and instead depicts him as a very human one. He's a rogue soldier in fatigues, smoking a cigar, dropping his trousers to reveal the bloodstain of his emasculation. You might expect the flowermaidens to also be wearing burkas in Vick's contemporary Middle Eastern setting, and indeed that is how we see the chorus, but initially the maidens are semi-clad in underwear only, looking on as Parsifal cuts his way through their men, later coming to him seductively in coloured wraps.

The strangest scene in Act II however is the appearance of Kundry as a head only, buried under the sand, positioned in the same place as the grail buried under the sand in Act I. Establishing the nature of Kundry is vital in any Parsifal and here she is not so much the temptress and seductress as having a surrogate motherly quality, bringing an Oedipal edge to her encounter with Parsifal. An iconic image of Mary Magdalene opening up from the floor hints at another side, and Kundry as a woman of course has many sides and many incarnations, weaving a web of illusion that Parsifal brings crashing down with his newly gained wisdom and the power that such wisdom conveys on him.

Just as you can't expect Parsifal to come to knowledge and understanding without undergoing the whole laborious process of learning, you can't expect to know what direction Vick is pointing towards until you get to the conclusion of this Palermo production. It is of course a variation on the idea of a return to the paradise, a return to lost innocence, but Graham Vick depicts this persuasively as the need to become like a child again, throwing off the artificial constructs of religion, war and racism that have led to a corruption of true nature of humanity, and aspiring to be something better. It's there in the Easter message of healing, of Death and Resurrection, wiping away the sins of mankind. In Act III the salvation is that the Knights are no longer called upon to fight wars and bleed. They no longer have the spiritual nourishment that the Grail once provided, a gift that was used in a corrupted way to sustain nationalistic pride and wage war. Now it is turned towards healing and compassion.

Again, this is something that has to be fully felt in order to be fully understood. Some of the shadowplay imagery in Act III is consequently quite shocking, the result of a world thrown into chaos, where coldness and horror hold sway. Amfortas, as a leader of men is tired of it all, even more unwilling to continue to wage an endless war; reluctant to give sustenance and countenance to its continuance he topples Titurel out of his coffin. In the healing of the wound, Parsifal opens up a new way guided only by love and compassion. That is the Holy Grail.

In order to feel that the production obviously needs rather more than visual references and cues, and fortunately it's a beautiful interpretation in terms of musical and singing performances. Omer Meir Wellber rushes it along a little fast in places, or maybe I've been listening to too many slow versions recently, but there is a deep flow to the performance, completely Wagnerian, and it supports and helps bring out all those undercurrents that Vick hints at in his direction. Catherine Hunold doesn't quite get under the skin of Kundry the way another interpretation might, but she proves to be a fine replacement for Eva Maria Westbroek, providing some lovely lyrical singing in Act II with Parsifal, but she is also able to bring an edge of chilling drama when it's needed.

I've seen Julian Hubbard a number of times - he's a regular in Irish National Opera productions - but I've never seen him take on anything as big as Parsifal. I believe he also was engaged as the understudy before having to take over the main role and he acquits himself exceptionally well, making it look almost too easy, but also essentially human. The other principal roles are all superb. John Relyea is a fine Gurnemanz, his solemn intoning warm and reassuring, his storytelling compelling, his belief unshakable, his joy at the end overwhelming. Tómas Tómasson is wholly enveloped in the painful distraction of Amfortas, and Alexei Tanovitski's Klingsor is one that shows up the weak foundation of his blustering menace in the face of a greater power.  Strong singing and good characterisation all around, the Good Friday message of the Palermo Parsifal hits home exactly the way it should.

Links: Teatro Massimo Palermo, ARTE Concert

Tuesday 21 April 2020

Janáček - From the House of the Dead (Munich, 2018)

Leoš Janáček - From the House of the Dead

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2018

Simone Young, Frank Castorf, Peter Rose, Evgeniya Sotnikova, Aleš Briscein, Charles Workman, Bo Skovhus, Christian Rieger, Manuel Günther, Tim Kuypers, Ulrich Reß,

Belair Classiques - Blu-ray

Personally I'll always hold the director Frank Castorf in the highest esteem for his deeply thoughtful Bayreuth Ring that dared to upset many but explored this complex work on numerous levels with increasing but unpredictable precision across all four days of that monumental opera cycle. There's no doubt however that the German theatre director can be hard work, particularly when he tries to condense down many ideas into a much shorter work like From the House of the Dead. Although the actual circumstances of the each of the inmates in a Siberian work camp is hard, the underlying humanistic intent and meaning of Janáček's opera, and indeed Dostoevsky's original work based on his own experiences as a political prisoner, shouldn't be quite so difficult to understand.

And at the most basic level its purpose does come across clearly. From the House of the Dead is a remarkable book and opera that celebrates the diversity of life and the power of humanity to endure the most abject of situations, retain hope and even some twisted sense of brotherhood or community in their shared experience that helps face the hardships that have to be endured. It's not so simple really when you break that down and even in this concise opera Janáček gives voice to the experiences of a number of men, each with very different ways of dealing with the situation they find themselves in, not all of them noble or their stories life-affirming. Janáček's music goes a considerable way to break that down and reassemble these broken people into a common humanity but Frank Castorf obviously isn't going to let Janáček do all the work.

One of the common experiences that all of the men in the Siberian labour camp have is hardship and living constantly in the presence of death. Death is inevitably uppermost in the minds of men struggling to survive intact from the soul-destroying experience of having endured time in this House of the Dead. As a way of showing how this brings about a recognition of one's mortality, Castorf has the inmates dress up as carnival goers wearing macabre suits and masks for a Day of the Dead parade. To contrast this and to provide some light that needs to exist somewhere in all this darkness, the symbolic eagle that is captured and eventually freed is at the same time an eagle and Aljeja, the young Tartar prisoner befriended and mentored by Petrovic, dressed in another colourful carnival costume as a Bird of Paradise.

Like many of the constructions created for his Ring tetralogy, the set is a typical three-dimensional rotating construction of a concentration of a camp, if I may be allowed to describe it that way, closed in and layered upwards with guards and warders up on the upper level, the grimness of the prison camp's concrete and barbed wire below. In a way it's like all humanity at its best and worst is crammed down below, faces scarred, covered in boils and sores, others stained with blood and dirt. There is certainly an expansive look at the variety and diversity of life experiences to be found in the stories that the men tell to stand out and affirm their own sense of identity. There's also a measure of release in expressing their cynical view of the unjust cruel world outside, taking some comfort at the same time in the stories of others' experiences that are worse than their own. Even the way they amuse themselves, fighting, bickering, mistreating prostitutes, putting on an absurd theatrical entertainment, has an air of grim but necessary release from inner demons.

To extend that view and get down and dirty with it Castorf uses another device the viewer might be familiar with from his Bayreuth Ring and that's using video screens with cameramen walking around the stage gathering closeups and behind the scenes incidents. Characters speak silently to the camera with subtitles provided (not always in English), spotlights and searchlights, contribute to the intense situation and there are of course plenty of Castorf's strange touches that connect to or have contemporary associations like an illuminated Pepsi Cola sign and a movie poster of Joseph Losey's 'The Assassination of Trotsky'. What they all mean is anyone's guess, but they all add to an interesting view on an always fascinating work.

Something else that you can always count on in From the House of the Dead is the opportunity to see some fine singers put through their paces in an opera that always remains a challenge and requires exceptional singers, not least because they are sung in Czech. The Bavarian State Opera have engaged an exceptional cast here, all of them very much rising to the challenge that Janáček and Castorf have in store for them. More often a Gremin in Eugene Onegin or Daland in Der fliegende Holländer Peter Rose is a great singer but rarely gets parts as expressive as Petrovic and he makes a great impression here. Charles Workman characteristically throws himself into the madness of Skuratov and Bo Skovhus brings a more menacing edge to Šiškov, but all the variety that you expect to find is there in the excellent casting. Janáček's opera has an uneven rhythmic melodic pulse but Simone Young finds that through-line in the score that captures the different tones and adventurous instrumentation employed by the composer in his final work.

The quality of the picture and sound on the BelAir Blu-ray release is excellent, the image clear and free from any issues, the relatively short work comfortably fitting on a BD25 disc. The detail of the score comes across well on both the lossless PCM stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround audio tracks. There are no extra features on the disc and the booklet only includes a synopsis and tracklist, with no information on the intentions of the production. 

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper

Saturday 18 April 2020

Wagner - Tannhäuser (Berlin, 2015)

Richard Wagner - Tannhäuser

Staatsoper Unter den Linden Berlin, 2015

Daniel Barenboim, Sasha Waltz, Peter Seiffert, Ann Petersen, Marina Prudenskaya, Peter Mattei, René Pape, Peter Sonn, Tobias Schabel, Jürgen Sacher, Jan Martiník, Sónia Grané

Staatsoper Video on Demand

Some of Wagner's later operas lend themselves well to a more abstract expression by directors in collaboration with artists and sculptors, finding new ways to delve into the philosophical, spiritual and transcendental qualities of Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal. When it comes to Tannhäuser directors generally take a more conventional and literal approach to its divisions between the physical and the spiritual, and it has tended to be less effective when directors take the artistic conceptual approach like the one in the 2014 Bayreuth production. The work's big, bold and direct nature even constrains the more experimental directors like Calixto Bieito and Romeo Castellucci, limiting their ability to explore aspects of the work entirely successfully. And yet the limited dramatic potential versus the poetry of Wagner's libretto and the flow of his music does seem to call out for an imaginative response. Perhaps dance is the way?

There's certainly a ritualistic almost religious ceremonial aspect to Tannhäuser that can be developed as Castellucci did in a rather obscure fashion with topless archers during the work's overture, but recognising that there is a flow in Wagner's score throughout the opera, director and choreographer Sasha Waltz extends this sense of ritualised movement with additional dance elements. It should also be noted that Wagner introduced a ballet into the work for its infamous French premiere, so there's justification for seeing dance as very much part of the work.

Waltz's choreography moreover doesn't dominate or take over from the dramatic expression but it certainly enhances it and brings out or highlights that essential character in the score. Again, the limitations of this work are still felt, and although the Act 1 Venusberg Bacchanal features semi-naked dancers writhing languidly and feverishly to Wagner's music, capturing the hedonistic side of the scene, it goes on a long time in this hybrid version of the opera and - despite the nudity - runs out of ways to keep it dramatically interesting. The set is simple but beautiful, a cone at back of the stage that pours out bodies spilling over occasionally onto the stage, a whirlpool that holds Heinrich in a centrifugal force that proves difficult to escape.

Dancers also capture the rhythmic chants of the pilgrims in the subsequent scene, skipping around Landgrave and the singers of Wartburg who are dressed in stuffy formal costumes of tradition and convention as they try to spin Heinrich back into their orbit. Movement also ties into music and song, showing it as a force that Elisabeth can't live without, Waltz striving to make visible that fact that there is life and truth contained within this gracious. There are no static solid beams in the Wartburg hall either, the walls thick bamboo-like pillars that sway in response to the drama contained within them. These are simple sets yet they provide space for movement, even if it is just the flow of the figures with them, never allowing the work to become static and unyielding.

Choreography is not something I usually comment on in opera productions, for the obvious reason that they rarely have a significant presence in opera, but Sasha Waltz's choreography is superb here, keeping the work moving, only bringing the dance to the forefront to emphasise certain scenes, stepping back in others so that it never overshadow the singers or Barenboim's progression of the score, managing to be expressive and as one with the music. The procession of the pilgrims in Act III whirling to the chorus in the misty morning is just glorious. The dance choreography definitely contributes then, but it's also just good direction.

As a concept Waltz perhaps doesn't particularly have anything new to say but very much finds a personal expression for Tannhäuser. If nothing else, she finds an appropriate way to handle the miracle conclusion that fits with the overall theme of the production, visualising the staff sprouting green leaves as a human body, which is a nice touch and all the more effective for not bombarding the work with symbolism and imagery as others mentioned above. It's a beautifully designed and costumed production with lovely lighting that is moody and dramatic, all of which is very much in tune with the nature of Tannhäuser.

In musical and singing terms it's a ravishing account, persuasive that this is a work of balletic grace. Daniel Barenboim measures that flow of sensuous delight to perfection, glorying in the rousing majesty of the opera's choruses, and the singing performances are all outstanding. Ann Petersen brings a sweet lyric softness as Elisabeth. Peter Seiffert is magisterial as Heinrich, Peter Mattei is an outstanding Wolfram, René Pape a reliable Landgrave, and Marina Prudenskaya is an excellent Venus. Whether the dance elements work for you or not, this is a glorious Tannhäuser to listen to and see performed to this standard. 

Links: Staastoper Unter den Linden

Monday 6 April 2020

Strauss - Die Frau ohne Schatten (Vienna, 2019)

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