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Kaiserin Conquers.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on November 11, 2013 at 1:40 pm

Review – Die Frau ohne Schatten (Metropolitan Opera, Thursday 7 November 2013)

Die Kaiserin/Empress – Anne Schwanewilms
Der Kaiser/Emperor – Torsten Kerl
Barak, the Dyer – Johan Reuter
The Dyer’s Wife – Christine Goerke
Die Amme/ Nurse – Ildikó Komlósi
The Messenger – Richard Paul Fink
The Falcon – Jennifer Check
The Hunchback – Allan Glassman
The One-Eyed – Daniel Sutin
The One-Armed – Nathan Stark
A Voice From Above – Maria Zifchak
Voice of the Young Man – Anthony Kalil
Watchmen – David Won, Jeongcheol Cha & Brandon Cedel
Servants – Haeran Hong, Disella Làrusdóttir & Edyta Kulczak
Voices of the Unborn – Jihee Kim, Ashley Emerson, Monica Yunus, Megan Marino, Renée Tatum & Danielle Talamantes
The Guardian of the Threshold – Andrey Nemzer

Director, Set, Costume & Lighting Design – Herbert Weinicke
Stage Director – J. Knighen Smit

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (Conductor)

Die Frau ohne Schatten seems to be emerging slowly from its own shadows.

This production – a decade after it first nodded at the Met – joins an increasing number that are being staged including Covent Garden’s production by Claus Guth that was first seen at La Scala last year.

On the whole the Met’s revival is incredibly strong both it terms of its musical and production values. The major roles were well cast and the requirement for Cecil B DeMille scale casting of smaller roles was similarly smartly done.

I am surprised that this was Anne Schwanewilms’ debut at the Metropolitan Opera. Considering she is one of the leading Strauss sopranos singing today I do wonder why she has not sung Ariadne, the Marschallin or the Countess at the Lincoln Centre.

However on the strength of her performance as the Kaiserin – the strongest of the evening – I hope that the Met will book Ms Schwanewilms more regularly in future. For it was, musically and dramatically, a performance of great intelligence and sensitivity. From her first appearance – which makes or breaks this role from the start with Vielleicht träum ich mich züruck – Anne Schwanewilms sang with impressive authority. She was vocally bright and agile, floating Strauss lines effortlessly and rising above the orchestra. And yet when needed, the soprano shaded and coloured her voice – no more so than when realizing that the Kaiser will turn to stone should she not obtain a shadow she chillingly sang Der Kaiser muß versteinen. Her dream sequence in the Second Act was both eloquent and dramatic but it was her performance in the final act that crowned her performance. As she confronted both her father Keikobad as well as her own burgeoning conscience as a woman, Schwanewilms truly showed what a magnificent singer-actress she truly is. The hairs on the back of my neck – and I have no doubt everyone else’s in the opera house – were standing on end by the time she summoned up the final courage to stand up to Keikobad (and for humanity) and defiantly proclaimed Ich will nicht.

It was an outstanding performance vocally matched by an incredibly strong dramatic performance. At the beginning Ms Schwanewilms literally glided across the stage almost Melisande-like in her movements. Even in the human world, she portrayed an almost dream-like persona in her movements and interaction with the other characters. But as the drama unfolded her attentions and reactions to Barak and his wife became more human in a way meaning that her final defiance of her father was dramatically more realistic.

As The Nurse – an almost impossible role in the wrong hands – Ildiko Komlósi was similarly magnificent. In possession of a rich and darkly hued mezzo soprano, Ms Komlósi more than negotiated the demanding role written by Strauss. As well as being able to cut through the orchestra and dominate the vocal ensemble when required, Ildoko Komlósi also masterfully shaded and textured her singing particularly when tempting the Dyer’s Wife. Again dramatically The Nurse was convincing as a character showing her disgust not only at the human life she had to endure to get her mistress a shadow but also towards the Kaiser.

As I have said before Strauss can be pretty thankless when writing for male voices and the roles in FroSch are now exception. But here Torster Kerl as the Kaiser and Johan Reuter as Barak excelled. Kerl – an excellent Tristan for Glyndebourne – sailed through Strauss’ music and over the orchestra effortlessly. Wenn das Herz aus Kristall was suitably beautiful above Strauss orchestration in its grace and vocal seamlessness.

And on the strength of his Barak in New York I am very much looking forward to Johan Reuter’s performance in the role at Covent Garden in 2014. Like the other main characters he was vocally and musically impressive. His performance as the first act closed was as heart-rending as his attempts to kill his wife at the end of the second act was frightening. And with Mir anvetraut in the Third Act, Kerl sealed the deal as an utterly compelling Barak.

I am currently nonplussed by Christine Goerke. I recently saw her Elektra at Covent Garden and – truth be told – was not as bowled over as others with her performance. As I said at the time she has the heft and volume but wasn’t always totally secure vocally. And it seemed the same with The Dyer’s Wife. In those moments when the focus was on her dramatically – as in the Second Act – her voice was forced, creating a distracting vibrato that undermined what was otherwise a strong and musically nuanced performance. And as with the rest of the cast her acting was incredibly strong. The love and care with which she attended the birdcage atop the fridge, and the underlying love she bore Barak juxtaposed with the frustration she felt with her life was tangible. But clearly the Met audience love her.

In the smaller roles Richard Paul Fink as The Messenger and the three Watchmen – David Won, Jeongcheol Cha & Brandon Cedel – particularly stood out for the strength of their performances.

In the pit, Jurowski drew superlative playing from the Met’s orchestra but I felt – as I did when he conducted Strauss in London – that he drove the music too hard and therefore missed those opportunities that Strauss wrote when the music should expand and glow. For example, the glorious theme in the First Act for the Kaiser had none of the sweep and grandeur it needed and that wonderful moment in the Second Act – the solo cello and lower strings so reminiscent of Strauss’ future Metamorphosen – was most perfunctory and cold in its delivery. He did seem to relax for the Third Act but a bit more ebb and flow would not go amiss.

Herbert Weinicke’s production was truthful in that – as per Hoffmannsthal’s original vision- it was a juxtaposition of exotic themes such as Arabian Nights and the bleaker human condition. And the machinery of the production, with its rising and falling sets was impressive and – compared to LePage’s ‘Monster’ – almost silent.

Yet Weinicke and Knighten Smit invested in detail. I have already mentioned the carefully characterization of the main players but it went further. The world of the Kaiser and Kaiserin displayed not wealth but an emptiness and a coldness that underlined the state of their relationship. Indeed the mirrored walls seemed to echo not only that coldness but to me the fact that every aspect of their life was in view. The Falcon – beautifully performed by Scott Webber – was directed to the music with great sensitivity. In the First Act for example, it seemed almost foetal in it’s encounter with the Kaiserin.

The world below similarly was cluttered with debris and some of it was emotional – the birdcage I have mentioned but also the partitions of the dwelling hinting at secrets between Barak and his Wife. And one thought crossed my mind as I watched her dealings with Barak’s brothers – did she not want children not so much for selfish reasons of a better life but perhaps because she saw in their disabilities her future children?

Die Frau ohne Schatten is not an easy listen but the Met’s production – with its strong ensemble cast and smart production – should not have to wait another decade to make it to the stage.

And similarly, I hope Ms Schwanewilms becomes a regular artist on that stage too.


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