Die Frau ohne Schatten (Mariinsky Opera, Edinburgh, Friday 2 September 2011)
The Empress – Elena Nebera
The Emperor – Avgust Amonov
Barak – Nikolai Putilin
The Dyer’s Wife – Ekaterina Popova
The Nurse – Elena Vitman
A Spirit Messenger – Evgeny Ulanov
Barak’s Brothers – Andrei Popov/Andrei Spekhov/Nikolai Kamensky
Voice of the Falcon – Tatiana Kravtsova
Original Director – Jonathan Kent
Revival Director – Lloyd Brown
Design – Paul Brown
Video & Projection Design – Sven Ortel, Nina Dunn
Conductor – Valery Gergiev
An overwhelming sense of disappointment. Not the best ending to a night at the opera – particularly after the excitement of the first night – but it’s the only way to describe how the Mariinsky Opera production of Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten left me as I walked away from the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. All the more so following the inspired – if sometimes flawed production – I enjoyed in Copenhagen a few months back.
On paper the billing was promising. Having seen Gergiev conduct many times before – including an extraordinary Elektra at the Barbican with Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet – and the promise of an intelligent production from Jonathan Kent, the augurs were good. Of course with any Mariinsky production you expect some of the singers to be hit and miss, but nothing can – in my mind – account for last night. The Mariinsky is probably unsurpassed in terms of their Russian repertoire and I’ve only read about their faulty staging of The Ring. But their decision to stage this Strauss opera needs either major improvement or total abandonment.
It’s a shame as the production itself had some interesting features but ultimately they didn’t knit together cohesively, almost ended in farce, and undermined von Hofmannsthal’s original intentions. When I was young I had a book of Russian fairytales – including Baba Yaga and The Frog Princess – illustrated by Ivan Bilibin and it’s clear that Jonathan Kent and Paul Brown were similarly inspired by Russian tales as well as by the chinoiserie movement for the spirit world of the Emperor and Empress with it’s oversized flowers and golden statuesque beasts. However perhaps the fly-eyes on the hapless Falcon would have been better left to Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon. The use of projections – and a general theme of water – implied that this kingdom was underwater. In stark contrast the world of Barak and his wife was as clearly set in modern day – presumably – Russia, with launderette-style washing machines and a suitably grey and crumbling work/home environment.
As I said there were some nice touches. During the first dream sequence in the Dyer’s home, for example, harem handmaidens came out of the washing machines and the use of footage of babies against the wall of the Dyer’s how was effective. On the other hand there was some choreography that was misjudged – in the opening scene the movements of the Emperor’s guardsmen made me think of nothing less than those of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard Of Oz. Perhaps that was the intention.
As in Copenhagen‘s much more effective production, the Mariinsky used projections throughout the operas to effect both scene changes (some of which featured noisy stage hands barking orders at one another) as well as to add to the drama unfolding on the stage. The falcon and flocks of bird featured heavily as did a vocabulary of rolling clouds, waves and water. Apart from a desire to see more variation in the flocks of birds, the projections were generally effectively used – Francesca Zambello take note – and in particular the sunburst reaching down into the water the final scenes was almost – but not quite – breathtaking.
While the setting of the first two acts were traditional almost to the point of predictability, the final act was confused, contrived and ultimately almost farcical. Opening quite literally with the world ‘upside down’ – or indeed underwater although this wasn’t entirely clear – Barak’s car and a tree, both upended, were gradually joined by other ephemera from both the real and spirit world. Against this backdrop the Dyer and his wife wandered aimlessly across an empty set until they eventually disappeared into the background to be replaced by The Empress who took to the stage, amid golden light and glitter and what can only be described as a misshapen plastic ‘egg’. Clearly this was meant to entomb the petrified Emperor, but I don’t think I have ever encountered anything as incongruous, clumsy and so simply badly judged on stage for some time. It reminded me of nothing less than the Kinder Eggs I used to have when I was a child. After it had been subjected to intense heat. No amount of grace could enable any singer to emerge from this deformed Perspex ovoid with any grace and dignity and the moment was only saved by the clever use of lighting to create the Empress’ shadow.
Yet the effect was broken at the end as the back of the stage opened up to enable a crowd of Russians to amble like zombies to face the audience. Clearly they were meant to be Russian as there were men in uniform amongst them – either a clumsy tribute to Gergiev’s protector Putin or a simple reminder of the continued power of Russia’s military state.
It was a relief when the curtain fell.
In terms of the singing, it was almost uniformly bad. Overall not only was their German poor and their diction dire, but the quality of the singing itself left a great deal to be desired. The stand-out performer was Nikolai Putilin’s Barak. His deep and resonant bass, rich and even throughout and coupled with a real sense of musicianship and knowledge of the role, showed little strain even by the end and mostly rose above the clamour Gergiev and the orchestra were making in the pit. Apart from Putilin, the rest of the ensemble struggled both with their roles and against their own limited talents. ‘Next best’ but leagues behind her husband, was the Dyer’s Wife of Ekaterina Popova. While she has a large voice she seemed unable in the first two acts, to control either her intonation or dynamic range. While she fortunately rallied for her short scene at the opening of the Third Act, this is clearly not a role suited to her voice. The same is true of Elena Nebera’s performance as The Empress. Again she has a rich soprano voice but didn’t seem to be in complete control of her own instrument, leading to both intonation problems and an acute inability to sing Strauss’ fluid lines. She also had a troubling habit of stopping for a split second before attempting any note above the stave. Avgust Amonov’s Emperor was poor from the start. Weedy and strained vocally, he cracked from his opening scene and never recovered. Drowned by the orchestra – not completely his own fault – this is not a role he should have in his repertoire and I am equally surprised – or is it horrified? – to see Cavaradossi, Calaf and Siegmund among his other roles. I shudder to think.
In the smaller replies, Evgeny Ulanov was an accomplished Spirit Messenger but Tatiana Kravtsova was simply miscast as The Voice of the Falcon. She failed to annunciate the words, negotiate the vocal line or create any sense of drama. Again she bills herself as a Violetta – not a role I would want to sit through.
But of them all Elena Vitman’s The Nurse was the worse. Over and above the dreadful ham acting – Ms Vitman, there must be more in your acting vocabulary than hand wringing – she simply didn’t have the vocal capabilities for this demanding role which requires an innate sense of musicianship and strong characterisation rather than the vamped up pantomime portrayal she delivered. For a role that is almost excessive in its vocal demands and almost constantly on stage, who at the Mariinsky thought Ms Vitman was a suitable choice? Her voice was ungainly, uncontrolled, out of tune and on more than one occasion when it became too much for her, she resorted to something resembling bad sprechstimme. Appalling.
The various choruses – adult and children alike – were lacklustre and indistinct in their singing and again intonation problems abounded.
So this leaves us with ‘Maestro’ Gergiev and the orchestra. As I said at the beginning I have seen him conduct many times and remember a particularly spectacular Elektra at the Barbican with Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet and the LSO. His Die Frau was poor – devoid of the passion and insight for which he is renowned and indeed whenever I looked toward him there was a single look on his face – of vacantcy. There was no sense of finesse in the playing and the orchestra seemed to have one volume – loud – which was coupled with some cloudy brass playing and dodgy intonation from the strings. The opening of the Second Act, where Strauss wrote some particularly ravishing music for solo cello and strings that looks forward to Metamorphosen, was particularly lacklustre and bland and the closing bars of the final act were ragged and messy. It was almost as if Gergiev hadn’t looked at the score since the Mariinsky last toured with it, if in fact he had studied it at all.
One wonders whether Gergiev – already so greedily over-committed for the sole purpose of self-aggrandisement – is a good choice as President of the Festival? Will it mean more mediocre performances from the Mariinsky Opera and other companies that he is associated with? A cultural suffocation of the Festival to appease and satisfy his ego?
Of course, this isn’t the first – and won’t be the last – time that I attend a performance that is disappointing. However, the majority of the time, even the most disappointing productions have redeeming features – a smart director that makes you think, a reasonable cast of singers, an intelligent conductor.
Not on this occasion. Mr Gergiev, can I have a refund please?