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Posts Tagged ‘Evelyn Herlitzius’

Four Play – Strauss in Berlin

In Classical Music, Opera, Richard Strauss on April 13, 2016 at 9:49 am

Four days of exceptional singing.

Four days of brilliant orchestral playing.

Four days and a full range of emotions.

Four days in Berlin for Elektra, Die Äegyptische Helena, Die Liebe der Danae and Der Rosenkavalier.

The standard of each performance was remarkably high. At times, incomparable.

It began and ended with two remarkable performances – Evelyn Herlitzius as Elektra and the Marschallin of Michael Kaune. Ms Herlitzius divides people like a Riesling. But whatever your taste, there’s no denying that her interpretation is both formidable and mesmerising. Not always vocally beautiful or precise, it is searing in its intensity, emotionally raging and matched by a dramatic commitment that is almost overwhelming. What is missing is the breadth of phrasing but it was nonetheless an exceptional performance. And in the ‘other corner’ of this emotional boxing match, Doris Soffel invested Klytemnestra with authority both regal and musical.

Replacing Anja Harteros, Michaela Kaune immediately erased any sense of disappointment with an incredibly memorable Marschallin – beautifully observed, musically intelligent and delicately nuanced. It was perhaps one of the finest interpretations I’ve heard in a while. Every word, each phrase carefully shaped and delivered. The result? She did suddenly look old at her levée; bitter and resentful of youth as she muttered about ‘Resi’ and without a doubt the wife of a Feldmarschall when she finally dismissed Ochs. Yet it was her performance in the final trio that was definitive. Her singing and her acting conveyed a simple fact – that her life was entering a new and final phase. One of loneliness. No more Octavians hiding in her bedchamber. It wasn’t resignation as much as defeat. Heartbreaking.

In Helena, Ricarda Merbeth and Laura Aiken were vocally resplendent, effortlessly riding the crest of Strauss rich and heady orchestration. Indeed in the opening of Act Two, Merberth’s post-coital vocal rapture not only matched that of the music but had me wondering she had abandoned Menelaus – wonderfully sung here by Stefan Vinke – for the boy Paris if the sex was so good? And as ever it was delightful to hear Ronnita Miller. When will we hear her in London, I wonder?

The real discovery of the four days was Daniela Sindram. Her Octavian went from swaggering seventeen year old to love struck teenager over three acts. Combined with real acting talent is a remarkably rich, burnished yet darkly hued mezzo that shows no sign of strain throughout its range. Definitely one to keep an eye out for.

Manuela Uhl and Mark Delavan both delivered conscientious performances. Delevan’s was both musical and dramatically confident but slightly underpowered. Uhl’s Chryosthemis failed to ignite the much needed desperation and her vocal line didn’t soar quite enough as others in the role. As Danae, and I saw her in exactly the same production a few years ago, she gave a beautifully nuanced performance but it took until the final act before she shone vocally.

As Der Rosenkavalier’s Sophie, Siobhan Stagg’s performance captured the young girl’s skittishness. I’ve also no doubt that the harsh edge to her voice will be ironed out as her voice develops further. When that happens, Ms Stagg could become a memorable Sophie.

Each and every other singer over the four nights was of an exceptionally high standard. Exceptional mention for Tobias Kehrer’s broodingly resonant Oreste, Michael Kupfer-Radecky’s patrician Faninal and the brightly voiced Midas of Raymond Very. All three particularly stood out in roles that more commonly suffer. It’s also easy to forget that Der Rosenkavalier is truly an ensemble opera and there were exceptionally strong performances across the board including Stephanie Lauricella as Annina, Fionnuala McCarthy’s Marianne and tenor Matthew Newlin.

It was also refreshing to sit through four intelligent, well-thought out productions.

Elektra, directed by Kirsten Harms, was couched in the inevitable doom and gloom of overwhelming tragedy. Enclosed by three walls, it was reminiscent of the garbage chute in Star Wars, especially as the ensemble spent a lot of time floundering around in the mud. Just once I’d like to see a bit more colour at Klytemnestra’s court. She’s a rich woman at the head of a corrupt and debauched court – you think she’d have some fun with it, wouldn’t you?

The Kismet-meets-Indiana Jones of Die Ägyptische Helena (Marco Arturo Marelli) was a visual delight. And xxx managed the shift from the more comedic opening to the closing pathos with great skill. And as Helena says farewell to Aithra and her cohorts, it felt that perhaps she wasn’t really going to completely give up her flirtatious ways, as Menelaus reaction also seemed to convey.

Strauss was often criticised for his commercial acumen. He fought hard to control the copyright of his music, and perhaps rightly so having witnessed the chaos of Wagner’s own attempts. The sheets-of-music-cum-shower-of-gold in Die Liebe Der Danae was a clear reference to this, as was the piano spinning ominously overhead throughout. Yet at the end, Danae willingly handed over the gold/music to Jupiter in exchange for eternal happiness with the donkey herder. Not sure Strauss would have agreed.

Götz Friedrich’s Der Rosenkavalier was first performed in 1993 and is ample demonstration that if a production works, why change it? It seamlessly brought together the worlds of 18th Century Vienna with the world that would have been more familiar to Strauss himself. I loved the fact that the ‘maskerade’ referred to by the Marschallin at the ended actually begun before the opera started. As mistress and lover dressed for their breakfast in Act One, they clearly donned outfits inspired by the commedia dell’arte. Another nice touch was when the Marschallin scented the silver rose in Da geht er hin – it added a certain frisson in the Second Act when Octavian smells the rose and then looks up at Sophie.

But it was the poignancy of this production that was most enduring – especially the final scene. After a ‘Ja, ja’ of resignation, the Marschallin stood in the background, destined only ever to observe Octavian from a distance. In some productions, there’s a lingering hope that Octavian might return to her. Not in this one. For director Friedrich, the Marschallin’s First Act view of men cruelly rings true.

The bedrock on which these four days rested was the superlative orchestral playing and singing of the Deutsche Oper. The players in the pit executed each opera perfectly on four successive nights – a testament not only to their stamina but also their knowledge and clearly evident love of the music. They were directed by a quartet of conductors with an intimate knowledge of every musical detail which enabled them not only to balance singers and the orchestra, but most importantly giving both time and space to breathe.

I’ve not always been a fan of Donald Runnicles but his Elektra revealed an incredible range of colours and sororities with a vigorous attention to rhythmic detail. Andrew Litton veritably wallowed and revelled in the lush and sensuous sound world of Helena, finding a muscularity to it but never letting it swamp singers or players alike. Sebastian Weigle brought a transparency to the score of Danae – rarely have I heard the opening of the final act played with such luminosity. And while Rosenkavalier got off to an unsteady start, control was quickly asserted, with each and every waltz theme given loving attention.

In all, an incredible four days. Yet it’s hard not to bemoan the quality of musical life beyond London. I know funding is different, but it’s a shame that our own government doesn’t recognise the value – both cultural and economic – of a serious commitment to the arts and arts education.

Similarly it’s hard not to wonder how artistically Berlin gets it so right, and more often than not our own opera houses – both of them – get it so, so wrong.

 

 

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2014 – Birthdays, booing and Bach. More and less.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 5, 2015 at 12:09 pm

I’d like to start by thanking everyone who visits my blog. It started as a bit of an experiment and when I started writing this in 2011, I didn’t think it would last. Reading back over past entries reminds me some of the great – and not so great – performances I have attended, recordings I have listened to and general comments on aspects of classical music that have either intrigued me or irked me.

So thank you all.

In 2014, it felt like I attended fewer performances in 2014, and wrote less that in the previous year but in truth it seems that isn’t true.

The year began and ended with two performances that I don’t think I will ever forget. In January, Elektra with Evelyn Herlitzius in Dresden to mark the 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss’ birth; and just a few weeks ago, an emotionally wrenching Tristan und Isolde with Nina Stemme. On both occasions the outstanding quality of the singing, the playing and the production all came together perfectly. Having admired her as The Dyer’s Wife in FroSch, Herlitzius’ Elektra was a masterful and nuanced characterization combined with a vocal performance that took big risks which paid off. And with Anne Schwanewilms as Chrysosthemis, Waltraud Meier as Klytämnestra and Thielemann in the pit drawing some beautiful playing from the Sächsischer Staatskapelle Dresden it was an unforgettable evening. I saw the Loy production of Tristan und Isolde when it premiered five years ago, and it remains on of my favourite productions. Nina Stemme was superlative as the Irish princess, and since 2009 it’s almost as if the music and Isolde herself have become fused into Stemme’s very bones. I was transfixed by her performance and again she was supported by an incredible cast including Stephen Gould and Sarah Connolly.

Nina Stemme also delivered a stunning performance as Salome at the Proms as part of the BBC’s rather half-hearted Strauss celebration. On the following night, Christine Goerke took to the stage as Elektra, but I admit I remain to be wholly convinced.

Staying with Richard Strauss, I managed to see three – well two and a half – performances of Der Rosenkavalier. Over and above all the fuss about the Glyndebourne production, I was not overly impressed. Ticciati’s colourless and rhythmically bland conducting failed to ignite despite some superlative playing by the LSO, and he was not helped by the musically-wan performances of Kate Royal and Tara Erraught. But perhaps it was simply because the other performances remain indelibly etched on my memory. I was incredibly privileged to attend two performances featuring Anne Schwanewilms and Sarah Connolly at the Barbican and then Soile Isokoski and Alice Coote in Birmingham. These beautifully poised, emotionally intense performances were conducted by Sir Mark Elder and Andris Nelsons respectively. It was hard to believe that it was the first complete performance of the opera in Birmingham but it reminds me that musical life outside London remains vibrant. Opera North ended their Ring cycle with incredible aplomb and authority in the summer. While there were inevitably some weak moments, I look forward to the complete cycle. Welsh National Opera brought Moses und Aron to Covent Garden, led by a forthright performance in the title role by John Tomlinson, most recently Covent Garden’s King Marke and Glyndebourne’s revival of Rinaldo demonstrated why Iestyn Davies is one of the most talented countertenors performing today. His performance of Cara sposa was heartrending.

Staying with baroque opera, Joyce DiDonato continued to wow and amaze with a stunning performance as Handel’s Alcina as part of her Barbican residency. Bedecked in what must surely now be ‘signature’ Vivienne Westwood, she was so successful in creating a flesh and blood sorceress, that her Alcina became more anti-heroine than villainess. At the beginning of the year, Francesco Bartolomeno Conti’s L’Issipile was given a long overdue airing. All credit to Flavio Ferri-Benedetti for his painstaking research and the stellar performances by Lucy Crowe, Diana Montague and Lawrence Zazzo who brought Conti’s music to life. I believe that we can expect a recording this year so keep an eye out as this opera contains some stunning music.

The Rameau Project – with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment – continued their ambition to performance this composers stage works with performances of Zaïs, Pigmalion and Anacréon to the Southbank together with dancers from Les Plaisirs de Nations. Their combination of intellectual curiosity and a palpable passion for Rameau’s music made for two evenings of fantastic music making. And at the Wannamaker Playhouse, the Royal Opera House breathed life into Cavalli’s L’Ormindo. With a cast including Samuel Boden, Ed Lyons, Susanna Hurrell, Rachel Kelly and Joélle Harvey, the high standard of the music performances under Christian Curnyn were matched by Kasper Holten’s well-crafted production.

Sadly, the main stage at Covent Garden didn’t always show as much wit, style or even intelligence. Standout productions of Tristan und Isolde, and a simply overwhelming Dialogues des Carmélites were in sharp relief to the rest of the season. In terms of Strauss, Holten gave us the La Scala production of Die Frau ohne Schatten. At the time I remember being so very excited by the prospect of this production and the cast. But as I left the performance, I remember feeling a sense of “premature expectation”. Neither cast nor production was consistently strong and I wish that Holten had imported his own production from Copenhagen.

The much anticipated Maria Stuarda with Joyce DiDonato and Carmen Giannattasio was musically beyond reproach but the audience – including myself – were torn by the production by Moshe Leiser & Patrice Caurier. I thought the production was flawed, as did others in the house that resorted to booing. I’ve nothing against booing, but it seems to have become a house staple on Bow Street. The shocking irreverence that Martin Kušej showed for Mozart’s Idomeneo solicited an even angrier response from the audience. And on that occasion I can’t blame them. Kušej showed scant regard for Mozart’s music, the narrative or the intent of this opera. I hope that he doesn’t return to Covent Garden until he has learned his trade. Holten’s own Don Giovanni – replacing Francesca Zambello’s lackluster production – was almost perfect. A strong cast, led by Mariusz Kwiecień was marred by his decision to cut the final sextet. I can’t deny the emotional impact created by Kwiecień’s Don left alone at the end, but it unbalanced the opera. I due Foscari might have provided a lightning rod for Domingo fans and non-fans alike but it gave the rest of us an opportunity to hear a rarely performed Verdi opera. Thaddeus Strassberger’s double debut felt slightly unfinished and the ‘mad tableaux’ at the end somewhat misplaced. But it was nothing compared to his production of Glare a few weeks later in the Linbury. I didn’t write about it at the time – I couldn’t find the right words – but I still feel that the violence against women that it portrayed was a step too far and completely undermined the opera itself.

In terms of new works, I saw ROH’s Quartett and ENO’s Thebans. Luca Francesconi is, without doubt, a smart composer. Creating layers of sound, this opera can only be described – both narratively and musically – as brutal. Julian Anderson’s Thebans by contrast, failed to pack a consistent punch. Indeed, both operas displayed the same weakness – how to create spans of music that knit together structurally, rather than a series of juxtaposed set pieces.

And finally, a special mention to the Royal College of Music for their smart and inspired production of Die Zauberflöte. A promising ensemble of soloists demonstrated that we have – in the wings – some exciting new voices to be heard.

2014 was also the year I made the decision to listen to all Bach’s cantatas. I admit that it’s been while since I wrote anything. That’s not for wont of listening to them, but rather finding the time. But I am determined to get beyond 1714 in 2015.

In terms of recordings, recital discs by Bejun Mehta and Philippe Jaroussky stood out for me as did Teodor Currentzis’ Le nozze di Figaro. His over-intellectualised approach occasionally intruded but there is no doubting his enthusiasm and passion for Mozart. Whilst not all the singers sound entirely convincing, Currentzis’ approach is invigorating.

But there are three discs that I return to regularly. First, Marina Rebeka’s Mozart recital disc. Her warm yet flexible soprano is well-matched to Mozart’s music and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under Speranza Scapucci play with grace. Carolyn Sampson produced a recital based around Eighteenth Century French soprano Marie Fel and it is a masterpiece both in terms of programming and performance. Composers from Mondonville to Rousseau blow the cobwebs of any thought that French music of this period was “all the same” but it is her performance of Rameau’s Tristes apprêts that is worth the price of the disc alone.

And especial mention must go to Anna Bonitatibus and her inspired recital built around Queen Semiramis. This is simply a joyous album featuring composers that might not be all that famous, but demonstrate that there is still plenty of excellent music waiting to be discovered. My favourite? Traetta’s Il pastor se torna aprile. With its violin obbligato and swagger you would almost believe its Mozart.

And for 2015? Looking at my pile of tickets, I didn’t realise I had so many to look forward to. First out of the gate is L’Orfeo at the Roundhouse.

But I daren’t say too much, I don’t think I want to suffer from “premature expectation again”.

So it only leaves me to wish you all a (belated) Happy New Year. May 2015 bring you much joy and good music.

Thank you for reading.

Women on the verge.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on February 2, 2014 at 5:30 pm

Review – Elektra (Semperoper, Dresden, Friday 31January 2014)

Elektra – Evelyn Herlitzius
Chrysothemis – Anne Schwanewilms
Klytämnestra – Waltraud Meier
Orest – René Pape
Aegisth – Frank van Aken
Companion of Orest – Peter Lobert
The Maids – Constance Heller, Gala El Hadidi, Simone Schröder, Rachel Willis-Sørensen, Nadja Mchantaf
The Overseer – Nadine Secunde
Young Servant – Simeon Esper
Old Servant – Peter Lobert

Director – Barbara Frey
Bühnenbild – Muriel Gerstner
Costumes – Bettina Walter
Lighting – Gérard Cleven
Dramaturgy – Micaela v. Marcard

Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden
Sächsischer Staatskapelle Dresden

Christian Thielemann (Conductor)

If the rest of Richard Strauss’ 150th anniversary maintains the standard of Semperoper’s Elektra, then 2014 will be more than a memorable year.

It will be a fitting homage.

The singing, the playing and – for me at least – the production came together almost perfectly.

In terms of the singing, if there was ever an opera equivalent of Fantasy Football League (please can someone invent it) then this cast was a ‘dream team’.

Is there a soprano on stage today who is a more convincing Elektra than Evelyn Herlitzius?

In compete command of her vocal technique, her rigorously disciplined instrument permitted her to take vocal risks that, combined with some finely tuned acting, made her characterisation so visceral. Yet at the same time she balanced it with an innate and musically intelligent sense of shade and colour. I don’t think I’ve heard the Recognition scene sung with such emotional and musical inteliigence, both Herlitzius and Pape completely committed to and immersed in that wonderful moment.

Therefore I find it incredible that we haven’t seen Ms Herlitzius in London. But then the same can be said of Ms Pieczonka in our capital and not forgetting that Anne Schwanewilms has only recently made her debut at the Met.

Such a towering performance from so physically slight a singer could not but cast a shadow on the other members of the cast.

But only slightly.

Anne Schwanewilms’ Chrysothemis contained all the trademark intelligence and eloquence that this soprano brings to Strauss. Her bright, piercing soprano for the most part sailed over the orchestra and as with her troubled sister, Schwanewilms is an instinctive actress. She portrayed both the often-missed vulnerability of this character as well as her exasperation and desperation. Her final return to the stage dressed as the never-to-bride, even at that moment conveying the forlorn hope that she might marry even after the double murder, and punctuated with the most heartrending calls for her brother will remain with me for a long time.

Who doesn’t admire and love Waltraud Maier both as singer and actress? Just as her Waltraute for Barenboim, Ms Meier’s Queen demonstrated that this soprano is a seasoned veteran who brings a real intellectual depth as well as formidable interpretive skills to any character she portrays.

Onto this Klytämnestra, Maier overlaid a real sense of fragility onto the more expected paranoia. Her scene with her daughter not only laid bare these feelings as well as her wariness and fear of Elektra, but also the unbreakable Mother-Daughter bond not often seen in productions. Just before the scene ended there was an unexpected moment of tenderness between the two that made Klytämnestra’s final exit, clearly accepting her fate as foreseen by her own daughter, all the more chilling especially as it was as if she was entering a tomb.

However at points it seemed as if Ms Maier was too immersed in the character. Her projection dimmed to too much of a whisper as if internalising only to herself the emotional journey the queen was going through.

It was also wonderful to hear René Pape in the role of Oreste. His dark timbre was perfect, suitably grave yet burnished and I have to admit in a production of generally small gestures his acting was powerful.

Where other productions of Elektra are often let down, the principals here were brilliantly supported by the rest of the ensemble. If I had to single out one other member of the cast then it would be the Fifth Maid of Nadja Mchantaf. Velvet-toned and even throughout her range she brought a real sense of dimension to this short-lived role and is definitely one to watch.

And in the pit, Christian Thielemann was magnificent, marshalling singers and orchestra with incredible authority and knowledge of the score. I personally think his affinities lie closer to Strauss than Wagner, and last night only confirmed that belief.

From the very first notes, he drew exemplary and confident playing from the orchestra. Where some conductors miss or submerge the detail in the mistaken belief that Elektra should simply assault the eardrums, Thielemann uncovered the lightness amidst the darkness and transparency within Strauss’ sometimes ‘over-orchestrated’ textures. And while he never let us forget that this is the composer’s most expressionist work, he celebrated the lyricism imbued both in the soaring melodies and motifs and similarly he was also not above judging when the orchestra – dominating the emotional mood with a motif or theme – rose over the singers.

More so than I’ve heard in previous productions of Elektra, Thielemann was not scared to allow the music to breathe, unfettering phrases and just as importantly seeking out the silences which are so essential in creating that sense of impending dread far more effectively than a hack and thrash battle through to the end.

It might not have been to everyone’s taste but I enjoyed the fresh perspective of Barbara Frey’s production, her first for Semperoper.

Let’s not forget that Elektra – both for Hofmannsthal and originally for Euripides – is ultimately a family tragedy. This was Frey’s focus but she also suggested new perspectives and interpretations.

For this director Klytämnestra may have wielded the axe, but all three women were complicit in Agamemnon’s death.

Elektra for example isn’t dishevelled and abandoned. Rather, in a dress more suited for an evening of revelry than the mourning weeds she more often dons in productions, she is no outcast.

Chrysothemis’ appearance from the very beginning not only reinforces her role as go-between but also voyeur but her final appearance in that extravagant wedding dress again hinted at a more secure position within the household.

And this was was a production of small gestures and actions. It was like watching a slow fuse burn and in some ways reminded me of Almodovar. Small gestures and tics – like Klytämnestra’s rubbing of her arm, Chryosthemis raising her arm in despair, the way the Maids hunched protectively together – replaced the histrionics.

And Frey had clearly spent time with the singers. As well as the Mother-Daughter relationship, Frey and the singers also re-examined other pivotal moments.

There was a surprising sexuality to Frey’s Elektra. Her flirting with Aegisth for example hinted at something darker in her personality. And as she tried to persuade her sister to commit the murder, in that moment as she caressed Chrysothemis, she morphed into lover and future husband. The look of subsequent horror on Chrysothemis’ face isn’t only the result of thoughts of matricide but also – perhaps – seeing a side of her sister she wished she hadn’t.

The aforementioned Recognition scene was built not only on the singing and orchestral playing under Thielemann, but also the direction on stage. This wasn’t an emotional roller coaster or brutal revelation that it sometimes is. After the initial shock Elektra and Orest rediscovered their childhood love. I, for one wasn’t jarred by the use of children as their younger selves and the way Herlitzius and Pape acted with one another – ending as it did with their foreheads press together as if accepting their own fates – was beautiful. Orest’s seeming reluctance to commit murder was similarly well observed and even Elektra’s final ‘dance’ was more in her own mind’s eye than for the audience.

And by keeping all the violence – including the brutal murder of the Fifth Maid – off the stage, Frey force the audience to focus on the main characters as well as the music and thereby distilling the emotions created even further.

Even the set was suggestive. The decorative balcony, the clothes of the main characters were reminiscent of the era of Strauss and Hofmannsthal themselves. Yet it was clearly a home in transition. The hole in the wall where Elektra concealed herself, the spare paneling against the wall and piled on the floor indicated to me the final stages of redecoration. it was as if they were trying remove any evidence of Agamemnon himself but ultimately had failed. For above their heads was the motto Justitia fundamentem regnorum – loosely translated as ‘Justice is the foundation of kingship’. An all too ominous aide memoire – none of them could neither escape the murder committed nor, with the accompanying lion’s head motif of the house of Atreus above it the spectre of Agamemnon himself.

And while the lighting was for the most part simple there was a single moment of breathtaking beauty – that moment when Orest first appears. Suddenly the house is dark except for a single beam of moonlight cascading into the house from one side which – for whatever reason – reminded me of the light in the Secessionsgebäude in Vienna.

Yet for all this, at no point did the production overpower the music making. Rather it added to the whole as an equal partner.

And it was this equilibrium between all the parts – singers, players, conductor and director – which made this Elektra so magnificent and memorable.

A ‘LuSch’ FroSch in Clever Vienna

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on March 21, 2012 at 11:10 pm

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.

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