Review – Die Frau ohne Schatten (Wien Staatsoper, 17 March 2012)
Der Kaiser/Emperor – Robert Dean Smith
Die Kaiserin/Empress- Adrianne Pieczonka
Die Amme/Nurse – Birgit Remmert
Barak The Dyer – Wolfgang Koch
Sein Weib/The Dyer’s Wife – Evelyn Herlitzius
Director – Robert Carsen
Conductor – Franz Welser-Möst
Wiener Staatsoper Orchestra & Chorus
Vienna, the home of The Secession, Freud, Jung and arguably the creative and spiritual home of Richard Strauss himself. The premiere of Die Frau ohne Schatten (‘FroSch’ as Strauss affectionately referred to it in correspondence with his librettist, von Hofmannstahl) was held in the city in 1919 and Richard Carsen’s thoughtful and well-paced production is in some ways an homage to the city itself both musically, culturally and philosophically.
It’s impossible not to start with Carsen’s production itself. I have previously seen his Iphigénie at Covent Garden with Susan Graham and was impressed with the real sense of claustrophobia he created which added to Gluck’s drama.
In the same way, this was possibly the strongest production of ‘FroSch’ I have seen either on stage or screen. It achieved an almost perfect balance of superb singing combined with intelligent and vital support from conductor and pit and married to an insightful yet challenging production.
And all this in Strauss’ most complex and challenging collaboration with von Hofmannsthal.
Over and above the incredible density of the libretto with its symbolism the biggest challenge for any director is how and where to set the opera. Kasper Holten created and successfully delivered a well-executed fantasy world with nods to manga and animé; Jonathan Kent‘s production opted for a fantasy world that confused chinoiserie and the Ivan Bilibin’s Russian fairytale illustrations with a backstreet launderette in Putin’s morally and politically corrupt Russia. While these interpretations worked – bar the incredibly flawed and poor music-making of Gergiev and his untidy band from the Mariinsky – in the sense that they placed von Hofmannsthal’s drama in a make-believe world they both left me wanting for a deeper emotional interpretation of the drama.
Refreshingly, Carsen’s production firmly rooted the drama in a modern yet simultaneously a timeless world where the emotional drama was played out through the lens of psychoanalysis, a fitting tribute to the city where the discipline was born. I say timeless as the staging and the costumes alluded to succeeding centuries. The Nurse for example looked like she’d stepped of the latest TV hospital drama, but the robes of Empress and Dyer’s Wife and the shirt collars of the Emperor and Barak hinted at the previous Secession era.
The opera opens in a bedroom. The Nurse, in a white coat of the medical fraternity is observing her patient The Empress who is sleeping. The Messenger arrives – The Nurse’s medical colleague – and consults The Empress’ notes while delivering the ultimatum that unless she gains a shadow the Emperor will turn to stone. In a clever coup-de-théâtre the backdrop then fades to reveal a mirror image of the original room and the entrance of The Emperor. Yet this alter-space had one tiny and significant difference – the photo on the desk was not of The Emperor, but with it’s black ribbon at one corner, it was the photo of a dead man.
Keikobad – father of The Empress – is dead.
In a single fade and with so subtlety placed a visual motif I almost missed it, Carsen has revealed his intention and direction of travel. He has abolished any sense of fairytale and instead we are in the world of a daughter locked in a world of grief which is impacting on her marriage. As a result the symbolism of gaining a shadow takes on new perspectives. Not only is The Nurse the only character who is able to cross into The Emperor’s world as well as the various planes that Carsen constructs as the drama unfolds, but the very nature of what the ‘shadow’ represents is open to interpretation.
When The Empress wakes up it is clear that The Nurse is more psychoanalyst that pill-administering doctor. The significance of the three-day deadline takes on a new hue. To cure her. To find a breakthrough in her breakdown.
For Carsen, when The Empress begs The Nurse to take her to ‘the human world’ to find a shadow this isn’t about a physical journey but rather a journey into her own mind. That is where the problem lies and it is the intervention of psychoanalysis that will uncover it.
Again Carsen’s attention to detail and obsession with telling a clear narrative come to the fore as the fade returns us to the alter-world but this time a world wrecked and ruined with broken furniture and the chaos of mess. Clothes everywhere and tables overturned.
And The Dyer’s Wife is The Empress alter ego except she is dishevelled, distressed and desperate. Carsen’s reinterpretation of the relationship between the two women is a masterstroke. He removes the normal physical tension between these two protagonists and instead melds them into one. And he created a similar parallel between The Emperor and Barak. For me the question posed was this – was The Empress truly in her own mind or was what we were seeing in Barak and his Wife the true reality of her life?
It was here that the subtlety of the lighting became even more evident. The creation of shadow and shade is an important tool in any theatre or opera director’s kit of parts and when used with intelligence can be incredible effective. Here it was clear that careful thought had been given to its role. Tellingly Carsen ensured that The Empress never cast a shadow. She was always in the shade – a voyeur within her own mind. And only The Nurse was visible to Barak’s Wife.
Strauss’ opera is full of challenges and none is more challenging than how to handle the somewhat unexpected Night Watchman’s chorus that closes the first act. Holten for example placed them off-stage as his Dyer’s Wife – Linda Watson – gazed longingly at the metropolis that eluded her.
Carsen’s solution was similarly tidy. He used it as the leverage to literally lift the walls of the set and symbolically I believe to lift the walls of The Empress’ mind. The start of the intervention that might lead to a cure.
The Second Act continued along this route with the same attention to detail by Carsen and his creative team. Interestingly the appearance of a true nude – and more than physically beautiful – young man (where do they find them?) elicited no response from the Viennese audience. In London such a theatrical – and justifiable act – would have raised sighs of indignation or titters. But in this act, the most incredible moment – both dramaturgically and musically – was the dream sequence. With Kammersängerin Pieczonka hanging precariously – so it seemed – from her vertical bed we finally came to confront what we had always suspected had led to her ‘breakdown’ – the death of her father. Using a film projected onto gauze we switched from Ms Piezoncka’s amazing performance to a film of her adolescent-self going through the door of her father’s bedroom and inadvertently witnessing his death. Again Carsen tied his interpretation back to the text of von Hofmannsthal with closing images of the father tying a pendant – the talisman of the libretto – around his daughter’s neck. It was gripping and literally the stuff that psychoanalysis is made of.
In the Final Act the momentum continued. First of all, and in a scene similar to that in Copenhagen Barak and his Wife were alone on a bare stage, enclosed in cubes of light. As each came to the self-realisation of their love together then a door – the door from the previous film – opened at the back of the stage. The first step in freeing the alter egos of The Empress’ mind and beginning her own journey of recovery.
And Carsen’s interpretation of the Empress and The Nurse as they journeyed towards Keikobad was deftly dealt with. The Empress realises what she must to as a giant version – and I do mean giant – of the door to her father’s bedroom opens at the back of the stage. And The Nurse is left to face The Messenger/Doctor who proceeds to pull apart The Empress’ file page by page. As he abandons her, the prone bodies that have been lying on the floor – and perhaps her past patients – rise up and mob The Nurse, their own cases studies in hand.
The penultimate scene returns us to the bedroom of The Empress. Here the symbolism of the water in the previous film is brought to the fore as she finally faces up to her fears over the death of her father. It is not The Emperor that is turning to stone but her marriage bed before she finally gathers the strength to symbolically pull away the covers. Again the whole scene – so brilliantly directed – was made all the more luminous by Ms Pieczonka’s mesmerising performance and the incredibly simple but effective achievement of her shadow.
Again the final scene presents a challenge. For Holt it was an opportunity to raise – if rather late in the day of the production itself – questions over the pro-life argument. I can’t even remember how Kent managed it as by then all I wanted to do was leave.
For Carsen it seemed to be a combination of a metaphysical response to the proceeding drama mixed with – if I am honest – it seemed to me a 1950s Hollywood film interpretation of, well, Heaven. And weirdly it worked brilliantly. In front of a plain white canvas which so effectively projected the shadows – children of those on stage – the closing scene became a paean to love. It should have been schmaltzy but it simply wasn’t. And it worked.
To put it simply. Carsen had taken an incredibly complicated fairytale and remodelled it – bravely and I think successfully – as a modern love story.
And if Carsen’s vision was strong and consistent then the singing was some of the best have seen not only in FroSch but in a long time on any stage.
As I have said previously, Strauss does not write music that is kind to men. With the exception of Baron Ochs and the Tenor in Der Rosenkavalier, the roles for men in this and Ariadne for example are unforgiving. So full marks to both Robert Dean Smith and Wolfgang Koch for riding for the most part above the orchestra and delivering musically accomplished performances.
All the off-stage roles – and in particular Chen Reiss – was similarly of a high calibre. But it was the three leading ladies who stole the evening.
The Nurse is an incredibly challenging role and after a slightly shaky start Birgit Remmert delivered a strong and characterful performance. Hers is a dark timbred soprano and while she occasionally displayed some vocal unevenness manoeuvred the demands of the score with success.
Evelyn Herlitzius as The Dyer’s Wife was mesmerising and she brought to the role hints of both Elektra and Salome. Vocally bright and clear for me she on occasion tended towards stridency although I think that perhaps this was more a case of pacing herself than vocal problems. Her acting was faultless and for me the most telling moment of her incredible talent was at the very beginning of her appearance when she almost – but only almost – seemed to fold into herself and surrender to her husband’s affections before turning on him.
However the highlight of the evening was The Empress of Adrianne Pieczonka. An eminent Straussian – most memorably I saw her as the Marschallin in Munich – she delivered an incredibly strong, insightful and musical performance. The Empress is not an easy role buy any means but Ms Pieczonka not only managed the vocal demands of the score itself not only in terms of the soaring vocal lines but also rode above the orchestra while maintaining the highest level of musicianship and intelligent interpretation. Her is a voice of great warmth and depth with a lustrous even tone through her entire register. Combined with an innate sense in terms of acting the role, never have I seen or heard the penultimate scene performed so wonderfully. And as I have said, her dream sequence was mesmerising. Indeed the Wiener Zeitung’s review – “Märchenhaft schattige Kaiserin” – was full of praise for her performance and called her inspiring (“begeisternd”).
And in the pit, Welser-Möst commanded the score and drew the most luxuriant and luminous playing from the orchestra. The brass were bright, the woodwind were pointed and the strings burnished. A Straussian par excellence, he unfolded Strauss’ wonderful music but never lost sight of the transparency needed even in the most heavily orchestrated moments to ensure that the singers were supported. And above all else, Welser-Möst demonstrated – and as the programme argued – that Die Frau ohne Schatten is the last ‘Romantic’ opera.
I hope against hope that this production will be recorded in some format. It was one of those rare nights when the highest level of musicianship was drawn from an amazing ensemble of singers which then combined on stage under the careful and intelligent direction of Carsen to produce a most memorable evening.
If I could I would return this weekend (24 March) and experience it all over again.