Archive for December 6th, 2013|Daily archive page

Ladies Night In A Foggy FroSch

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on December 6, 2013 at 4:03 pm

Review – Die Frau ohne Schatten (Live stream from Bayerische Staatsoper, Sunday 1 December 2013)

Die Kaiserin/Empress – Adrianne Pieczonka
Der Kaiser/Emperor – Johan Botha
Barak, the Dyer – Wolfgang Koch
The Dyer’s Wife – Elena Pankratova
Die Amme/ Nurse – Deborah Polaski
The Messenger – Sebastian Holecek
The Falcon – Eri Nakamura
The Dyer’s Brothers – Tim Kuypers, Christian Rieger & Matthew Peña
Watchmen – Andrea Borghini, Rafal Pawnuk & Leonard Bernad
Voices of the Unborn – Laura Tatulescu, Heike Grötzinger, Tara Erraught, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, Eri Nakamura & Okka von der Damerau

Director – Krzysztof Warlikowski
Stage & Costume – Malgorzata Szczesniak
Lighting – Felice Ross
Choreography – Claude Bardouil
Video – Denis Guéguin
Animation – Kamil Polak
Dramaturgy – Miron Hakenbeck

Orchestra of the Bayerische Staatsoper

Kirill Petrenko (Conductor)

Hats off once again to the Bayerische Staatsoper for their commitment to live-streaming opera from their magnificent opera house. The last live performance I watch was Kriegenberg’s production of Götterdämmerung with Nina Stemme. On that occasion it was via my laptop but this time round I managed to stream it via Apple TV and I would strongly recommend it. The quality was superb.

Having just returned from seeing Weinicke’s production at the Metropolitan Opera and with Carsen’s incredible production still fresh in my mind, I was interested to see Warlikowski’s take on this dark fairy-tale so laden with symbolism.

More of the production later because what made this an exceptional production was the incredibly high level of performance and musicianship on stage and in the pit.

At the heart of the production were stunning performances of the Kaiserin, Nurse and Dyer’s Wife – namely Adrianne Pieczonka, Deborah Polaski and Elena Pankratova. Personally of all the productions I have seen on stage, they represented an almost perfect trio of singers in these roles.

Adrianne Pieczonka – who was so mesmerizing as Chrysosthemis in London recently – brought a regal humanity to the role of the Kaiserin. Vocally she was simply incredible – secure throughout her range and bringing a range of colour and depth to the role that was evident even ‘down-stream’. I hold that she is one of the great Strauss sopranos on stage today and I just wish we could see more of her in the UK. Indeed it is a shame that she isn’t reprising this role in the Guth production at Covent Garden next year.

Deborah Polaski was surprise casting for me at least. A soprano I associate more readily with the role of Elektra and Isolde my initial skepticism was immediately dispelled with her first appearance. Not only did she negotiate this trickiest of Strauss roles with great musical authority but within the constraints of Warlikowski’s production she was hypnotic as the malevolent and controlling Nurse.

As Barak’s Wife, Elena Pankratova’s rich and resonant soprano was ideal. Again there wasn’t any weakness in her vocal range even when she was singing above the full orchestra. I am looking forward to seeing her reprise this role at Covent Garden.

As in New York both the Emperor and Barak were well cast. Johan Botha made the most of Emperor’s appearance, singing with a bright and alert tone. Similarly Wolfgang Koch’s lyrical singing, full-bodied when required, was beautifully suited to the end of the First Act – possibly the most beautiful music Strauss ever wrote for the male voice.

And as ever with Munich, the other roles were well cast, particularly Eri Nakamura as The Falcon and Sebastian Holecek as the Messenger.

In the pit. Kirill Petrenko matched the quality of the singing on stage by coaxing superlative playing from the orchestra. Unlike at the Met, Petrenko gave Strauss’ music the space to breathe and flex without ever seemingly drowning out the singers. That wonderful moment in the Second Act for the lower strings was magical as it should be.

In the same month that Opera magazine has dedicated the issue to RegieTheater – with enlightening interviews with Barrie Kosky, Graham Vick and Sam Brown – I have to admit that I wasn’t completely convinced by Warlikowski’s vision regardless of what directorial genre it was.

There were some moments, and motifs that were striking but for me there wasn’t the cohesive narrative of Carsen; the contrast and strength of characterization of Weinicke or Holten’s use of modern iconography that gave these three productions their strength in terms of storytelling.

Even before the music had started Warlikowski opened with scenes from Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad. I have to admit I didn’t immediately recognise the footage but once it did create a certain sense of expectation. The film’s narrative is – rightly – confusing with the barriers between reality and dreams vague. As the opera proper started we found ourselves in a room complete with a bed, chaise longue, fish tank and shutters all in view. The tiled wall – as well as the injection given to the Kaiserin – hinted at a medical establishment, but with the stuffed deer it was also reminiscent of an abattoir. There were dinner-suited servants and the Kaiser and Kaiserin clearly dressed as members of the wealthy classes. I didn’t get the symbolism of the Kaiser’s over-sized cross as there was a dearth of religious imagery elsewhere so that in fact it simply felt like a costume choice.

Barak and his Wife were hardly the poverty-stricken characters they are often portrayed as and Warlikowski stripped the three brothers of their scripted handicaps as far as I could see, and instead made one of them the subject of fits without explanation. However the lust they displayed for their brother’s wife was a smart – and somewhat chilling – insight.

While the transition between the two worlds was smartly done there was in reality little change of scene between the two. Was Warlikowski therefore implying that this was in fact all in the Kaiserin’s mind? Or our minds? Or, as they put the Nurse in a straitjacket, her mind?

The use – or over-use – of children through the production was also intriguing. The Falcon-As-Child was an interesting concept, especially vis-à-vis his relationship with the Kaiser. As in Carsen’s production, Warlikowski’s use of a ‘younger’ Kaiserin was a powerful image but it felt that his character was outside the events unfolding on stage. And while the use of children – and then adults – sporting bird’s heads was disturbing it didn’t add up to anything, although it was a nice touch to have them play cards – I entertained the thought that they were playing Strauss favourite card game of Skat.

Warlikowski’s portrayal of Keikobad was also disappointing – a man so old he was doubled over at ninety degrees. Hardly an Emperor to be obeyed let alone feared.

I have yet to see a convincing end to FroSch. Carsen created an purgatory-style world, Holten opted for images of fetuses and Weinicke brought down the stage lights. Warlikowski’s was visually arresting with the shadows of children reflected on the back wall. This image would have been so much more effective had it now been for the four main characters inexplicably seated to all intents and purposes at a café table drinking champagne.

Thankfully, he had clearly spent some time with the leads in terms of their characterization. It was particularly telling in the relationship between Barak and his Wife as well as Polaski’s portrayal of the Nurse.

However while there is no denying that Warlikowski’s vision was visually arresting, as a cohesive piece of story-telling his approach seemed too disjointed. Ideas were not worked through and on occasion it seemed that some were juxtaposed – thrown together almost – for visual effect rather than for a narrative purpose.

Ultimately however it was the high performance standards – particularly of the leading sopranos – that made this FroSch memorable. Once again the Bayerische Staatsoper must be congratulated not only for another incredible set of performances only slightly marred by a foggy production but also for their live stream strategy.

Next up from Munich will be La forza del destino with Harteros and Kaufmann on December 28.


Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

Good Music Speaks

A music blog written by Rich Brown

Kurt Nemes' Classical Music Almanac

(A love affair with music)

Gareth's Culture and Travel Blog

Sharing my cultural and travel experiences

The Oxford Culture Review

"I have nothing to say, and I am saying it" - John Cage

The Passacaglia Test

The provision and purview of classical music

Peter Hoesing

...a musicologist examining diverse artistic media in critical perspective


Oxford Brookes: Exploring Research Trends in Opera