Review – Die Frau ohne Schatten (Det Kongelige Teater, Copenhagen), May 28 2011
The Emperor: Johnny van Hal
The Empress: Sylvie Valayre
Barak: James Johnson
Barak’s Wife: Linda Watson
The Nurse: Ildiko Szönyi
Conductor: Michael Schønwandt
Director: Kasper Holten
Set, Projections & Costume: Steffens Aarfing
Light Designer: Jesper Kongshang
Video Designer: Steffan Aarfing & Signe Krogh
Die Frau ohne Schatten must rank as one of Strauss’ most difficult operas not only for the performers but for the audience as well.
The almost impenetrable libretto crafted by Hugo von Hofmannsthal draws upon a great deal of symbolism and allusion to other works which, while it may have satisfied his intellectual bent, would have been lost on the majority of listeners in 1919 and probably still is today. Fortunately however, the audience can listen to the entire opera guided by the universal themes of true love, forgiveness and the defeat of evil, and just sit back to enjoy the sumptuous music and, in this case, a great production.
Often the music composed by Strauss has been dismissed as being ‘heavy duty’ and I suppose for audiences used to Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier it might seem so. Yet judging from this particular performance, I am beginning to think that this might be an observation made by those who have not listened to the opera in its entirety. I have long loved the beautifully constructed score of Die Frau. Within it, Strauss clearly shows himself to be a master in orchestration, switching from full orchestral might to heavenly chamber-like sequences in a turn, as well as adept at handling of motifs and overall structure.
And a quick word about the Copenhagen opera house – or Operaen as it is known. Designed by Henning Larsen, it is a modern architectural gem. Approached by boat it sits on the island of Holmen opposite Amaliehaven in the centre of town. The lobby areas are open, light and airy, affording great views of the theatre across the water as well as Copenhagen itself, and the interior is beautifully designed, with a rich, warm acoustic and comfortable seats! A visit – especially considering the high performance standards – is a must.
This particular Copenhagen production of Die Frau ohne Schatten was the swansong of Kasper Holten who will soon take up his new post as Director Of Opera at The Royal Opera House following the retirement of Elaine Padmore. And on the strength of this production I, for one, am excited about his intending arrival and the positive impact it will have at Covent Garden.
From beginning to end almost, the production was intelligent, well executed and I think, true to the original conceptions of librettist and composer. Often when animation and video are used in opera productions they tend to interfere with the drama onstage. I think back particularly to the recent Lucrezia Borgia at English National Opera with Figgis’ badly judged Fellini-esque short films (which in fact almost took on the guise of badly made home porn) and the Sellars/Viola Tristan und Isolde in Paris. In truth, when I saw the latter production last year in London again as a concert performance the accompanying films worked much better. In Paris they simply distracted from the stage action – which admittedly revolved around the characters sitting, lying or standing on a simple blackened stage with a black box doubling as a boat, bed and final funeral dais.
In this case the staging was well conceived. The manga/noir inspired animation worked well, although even I have to admit I had somewhat tired somewhat of the circling falcon by the end. But the use of imagery, from the gangster-like portrait of Keikobad, the trickling hourglass and, during The Empress’s dream sequence, the petrifying Emperor, all added a clear layer of explanation.
The set very tidily separated out the worlds of gods and humans, and in the final Act Holten rather smartly turned the chambers of the gods from the first two acts into the prison cells for Barak and his wife. Similarly breathtaking was the end of Act One when the Dyer’s wife leaves him to sleep alone as she wearily climbs to the upper level to gaze up at the tall, Gotham-esque buildings above her.
However the final scenes saw the entire set removed which at the start continued the dramatic momentum. This was particularly true of the scene where the Empress confronts her father. The sudden lack of the set created a real sense of a massive throne room, helped by the simple and imposing backdrop of Keikobad himself before which she reasoned. However, trial over and with The Emperor restored, the scene changed to a nineteenth-century landscape painting in the style, to me, of the Danish painter Christian Købke. Perhaps this was a deliberate gesture yet personally it seemed like too great a stylistic change and was further exacerbated in the closing scene of five suspended ova onto which Holten projected caricatured images of children’s faces and foetuses. But on the whole, a smart and intelligent staging.
So to the music. As I have mentioned, it is often considered to be a difficult listen, and probably it is if the musicians are not of a high standard and not led by an intuitive and experienced conductor. Michael Schønwandt clearly loves the score and furnished a great attention to the orchestral detail, summoning impressive, secure and eloquent playing from his orchestra throughout, from the opening Keikobad motif to the final shimmering sounds of the closing bars. From the loudest crescendi to the most transparent of chamber-like sequences, the players demonstrated a high standard of playing throughout. But a special mention must go to the the Principal Cellist, Anders Öberg and his section for their beautiful playing at opening of the Second Act. Not only was the playing exquisite but for the first time it made me wonder if, as Strauss composed Metamorphosen at the end of his life, he did not think back – however fleetingly – to this part of the opera?
Of the singers, undoubtedly the night belonged to Linda Watson as Barak’s Wife. How I wish that she would sing in London more often for she has a marvellous voice – a rich, velvety tone which is supple throughout it’s whole range. She is an extremely talented singer, demonstrating an innate ability to colour the diction-pure words of her character throughout. Ms Watson easily negotiated the demands of this most difficult role, not only having the heft to ride above the orchestra when required but also able to float the softest notes even at the top of her register. Combined with a real talent for acting – so rare these days in singers – she made the character credible, from her avaricious and hawkish opening scenes to her final reconciliation with her husband. I will be listening to Thielemann’s Ring now I am back with renewed interest.
Ildiko Szönyi replaced Susanne Resmark on the night in question as The Nurse and did so admirably. Again she combined good acting with eloquent, straightforward singing. While her voice might not be to everyone’s taste, with a slight metallic ring when stretched, she inhabited the character of The Nurse so much so that her demise at the end definitely felt well-deserved.
Barak was played by James Johnson – a difficult role which he carried off with great skill and verve. From his initial cheerful demeanour, through his betrayal ton final act of forgiveness, Johnson performed credibly, although he did visibly tire at the end. Yet his deep, resounding bass – again with good, clear diction – was able to ride above the orchestra for the most part.
Sylvie Valayre’s Empress was – for me I’m afraid – less than passable. Not being acquainted with this soprano, a quick ‘google’ revealed that she is more well-known for her Verdi and Puccini heroines (apparently a notable Lady Macbeth at the Proms in recent years) rather than Strauss. It seems she came to Strauss quite late, starting with Salome before moving to The Empress in Die Frau, in which this was her Copenhagen debut. From her opening scene, with it’s bird-like runs it was clear that this was not going to be a first-class performance. I do not want to be unkind but throughout the performance Valayre sounded both challenged and strained vocally. At one point in the final act, a millisecond hesitation made it seem like she might not hit the note. Fortunately she did, but with neither grace or subtlety. In fact there was neither grace or subtlety in her entire performance, and for the most part a lack of vocal colour undermined further by some weak acting. I wonder if this role – and it does require a soprano with a formidable and secure talent – is now slightly too ambitious for Valayre? However I may be doing a disservice to her as an interpreter of Verdi and Puccini so will check out some of her recordings.
I’m afraid Johnny van Hal was similarly unimpressive, but for different reasons. His is an impressive voice – a beautiful, clear tone – but simply too light-weight for this role. Wonderfully expansive when the orchestra was in ‘chamber’ mode, he could not cut through when he was ranged against the whole cohort.
The three brothers were ably sung and interestingly, Holten had them portrayed almost as children – a nice gesture to the underlying friction in the Dyer’s household.
I did notice that Pappano was in attendance. I wonder if it was to consider Die Frau for a future ROH Season? I certainly hope so and that he won’t be put off worrying that the London audience might not enjoy it. If he was to bring this production to London – hopefully it would fit in the confines of Covent Garden’s stage – and with a strong cast including Ms Watson, it would definitely sell out.
Indeed the evening in Copenhagen belonged to Linda Watson and the production team and I shall be returning to Operaen again.