Sunday, November 17, 2013

Met - Die Frau ohne Schatten - 11/16/13

Composer: Richard Strauss
Conductor: Vladimir Jurowski
Producer: Herbert Wernicke
The Empress: Meagan Miller
The Dyer's Wife: Christine Goerkle
Barak: Johan Reuter
The Emperor: Torsten Kerl
The Nurse: Ildiko Komlosi

Although I've always liked, to various degrees, the widely different works of Richard Strauss, I've always had a hard time figuring out what the composer was all about. Since I am always on the lookout for more clues, I was particularly intrigued by The Met'd revival of its popular production of Die Frau ohne Schatten from over a decade ago. I understood that the performance would be long (about four hours) and the story pretty opaque (something about two childless couples and fertility), but the sets and the music were supposed to be wonderful, so I prudently avoided any school night and picked yesterday evening in order to be able to dedicate my full and rested attention to it. Then the endless raving about the cast came to my ears, which of course made the whole endeavor even more exciting.

Although it is now part of the repertoire, Die Frau ohne Schatten is still not exactly a regular presence in opera houses around the world. Among the reasons tentatively given for that fact are its length, its complexity and its size. Even Strauss was reportedly baffled by Hofmannstahl's enigmatic libretto, but that sure did not keep him from composing a formidable score for it. After all, when one tackles lofty themes such as the essence of life and human relationships, it does not really make sense to stop half way, intelligibility be damned.
One of the biggest challenges of producing Die Frau ohne Schatten is to find singers with enough guts, musicality and stamina to take on the five enormously demanding lead roles. In that regard, the current revival is a resounding success.
As the Empress, or the Woman without a Shadow, American soprano Meagan Miller looked and sang icy blonde style when she first appeared, but her natural compassion gradually took over as she was coming to realize that her happiness should not depend on another woman's misery. When she went into her big aria in Act III, her clear, beautiful voice powerfully rose and expanded with impressive volume and flexibility. This was a hell of a Met debut, and we can only hope to hear her again soon.
One could hardly imagine a more triumphant return for American soprano Christine Goerkle, or a more drastic departure from her previous parts in Mozart and Gluck operas. She has been unanimously heralded as the big winner of this production as The Dyer's Wife, and I am confirming that the world should believe the hype. She gave the rather ungrateful role of the bitter wife a genuinely human dimension, subtly underlining the character's wrenching unhappiness. She is unquestionably blessed with an amazing range, from the colorful high notes she assertively tossed up in the air to the dark depths of her lower register, which allowed her to flawlessly display a broad array of emotions.
Danish bass-baritone Johan Reuter gave a wonderfully touching performance as her steadily loving husband, Barak, the only character with a name. Somehow he knew that underneath his wife's moody personality was hiding a heart of gold and he never missed an opportunity to side with her, even during their most trying times.
The Emperor was just about as adoring towards his wife, as German tenor Tortsen Kerl masterfully demonstrated in his few and often solo appearances. His big moment took place in Act II, when he believed his wife had been unfaithful, but simply could not find the strength to do her any harm. 
As the witchy Nurse, Hungarian mezzo-soprano Ildiko Komlosi gave a deliciously wicked performance, authoritatively taking control of the proceedings and spectacularly losing her marbles when she was eventually dismissed from the spirit life she had been fighting so fiercely for.
The main set was smartly divided between the mythical realm upstairs, where the Emperor and Empress lived since she had the crazy idea to marry a mortal, and therefore had to step down from the spirit world, and the Dyer's home downstairs, in the mortal realm, both being simply but efficiently connected by a staircase. From beginning to end the stage was home to boldly inventive decors, which provided visual splendor and palpable atmosphere.
The castle of the Emperor and Empress dazzlingly proved that an ingenious use of mirrors is indeed possible on an opera stage when the minimalist set turned into a truly magical place thanks to an endlessly creative use of lighting. On the other hand, the Dyer's home was cluttered, drab and crudely lit up by factory lights; it was made even gloomier by the strained relationship between the couple.
Perfectly in line with their eye-catching surroundings, the costumes in the mythical realm were predictably splendid, never mind that the Emperor's clothes had more sparkles than even Liberace would have dared to wear and the Nurse looked as if she had come straight out of Vogue magazine. The most spectacular outfit, however, was no doubt created for the bright red acrobatic Falcon. I did not really get what the recurring bird was all about, but I found every one of its appearances absolutely mesmerizing.
The titanic score is not for the faint of heart, but Vladimir Jurowski bravely managed to steadily draw out the dark beauty of the music, including its big surging waves, its long romantic lines and its occasional introspective musings. Even more remarkable, he was particularly successful at holding the huge orchestra back during the most intense moments so that the singers could be heard, which is always much appreciated. Among the most memorable touches of quietness stood out the peaceful march of the night watchmen and the creepy voices of the unborn children coming from the boiling pot (Seriously).
With opulent music, stunning singing and gorgeous visuals, this Frau ohne Schatten is hands-down one of the most ambitious, fascinating and puzzling opera performances I have ever attended. My only ― and minor, really ― squabbles are all related to the convoluted story, obscure symbolism and heavy moralism that are inherent to the original work, but those can easily be cast aside as there is always plenty going on musically and dramatically.

The Met opera house was not full last night, but it was more than reasonably filled for such a non-traditional opera. More importantly, the audience stayed put, applauded enthusiastically and, in an unusual move, even the musicians in the orchestra pit stuck around to applaud the cast and their conductor. I finally made it home just after midnight, exhausted, but totally relishing the elating feeling of having just witnessed a challenging mission being magnificently accomplished.

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