Posts Tagged ‘Johan Reuter’

A Woman of Little Substance

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on March 20, 2014 at 9:17 am

Review – Die Frau ohne Schatten (Covent Garden, Monday 17March 2017)

Die Kaiser/The Emperor – Johan Botha
Die Kaiserin/The Empress – Emily McGee
Die Amme/The Nurse – Michaela Schuster
Barak The Dyer– Johan Reuter
Sein Weib/Barak’s Wife – Elena Pankratova

Director – Claus Guth
Designs – Christian Schmidt
Lighting Design – Olaf Winter
Video Designs – Andi A. Müller
Dramaturg – Ronny Dietrich

Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Semyon Bychkov (Conductor)

For the first time in many years I suffered what should be a recognised medical complaint during a performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten at Covent Garden.

Premature Expectation.

That is the only reason that I can think of why I did share the overall sense of enthusiasm and pleasure that the majority of people experienced with the Royal Opera House’s co-production with La Scala.

FroSch has quickly become one of my favourite operas by Richard Strauss, supplanting even Der Rosenkavalier in my affections. But on this evening it failed to have the same effect on me as it did either live in Vienna or by telecast from Munich.

Perhaps I had expected too much from this production that has elicited such an enthusiastic response from both audience and critics both in London and Milan. But once the curtain had descended I walked down Bow Street with an overriding sense of disappointment rather than the more common feeling of overwhelming wonder and elation at this incredible opera.

Strauss himself dubbed this the ‘last romantic opera’, and it contains some of his most beautiful music and soaring melodies. I don’t deny there were moments of beauty when the majesty of Strauss’ incredible score shone out.

But it wasn’t a consistent evening.

However laurels should crown the heads of Johann Botha and Elena Pankratova as the Emperor and Barak’s Wife respectively as well as Ms Schuster as Die Amme.

Does Johann Botha possess one of the few truly heldentenor voices on the stage today? Its bright, clean sound rises effortlessly above even the densest of Strauss’ orchestration, with Botha’s keen musical intelligence shaping the vocal line with both incredible grace and eloquence. He many not be the strongest actor but he makes his presence felt and I for one wished during this performance that Strauss had given him more to sing.

Ms Pankratova repeated her steely performance from Munich, finding the right balance between shrewish life and a woman desperate to be loved by (any) man. I won’t forget in a hurry her rich and warm soprano, especially at the opening of the Third Act and any weaknesses in her characterisation lay with Guth’s direction for this character.

The Amme of Michaela Schuster was more than equal to the demanding music that Strauss composed for this character. Vocally secure – and more often than not magnificent – even in the most taxing of passages, she rose above the challenge of the music to also delivered the most rounded and believable character to the very end. Her final glace to the audience spoke volumes of this Nurse’s malevolence which left – hopefully intentional in Guth’s confused vision – a final question mark over what the opera was all about.

I last saw Emily McGee in Munich when she replaced an ill-disposed Elsa. She is a soprano that possesses a vibrant soprano based on a foundation of both strong technique and musical insight. However I did wonder if the role of the Empress is slightly beyond her at this time? This role was originally created for Maria Jertiza and while Ms McGee produces a honeyed tone in her middle register, either end of her vocal range sounded less robust and at the top definitely pinched. Her first scene sounded more challenging vocally than it should have and it wasn’t until the final act that I heard the kind of voice that is required for this role.

The same can be said of the vocally resplendent Johann Reuter. While he displayed his usual confident and firm delivery, I felt not only that his Barak lacked a sense of finer nuance and colour but also more importantly, at times the Dyer was too inward looking in term of his performance.

The remaining members of the cast delivered their roles well if not exceptionally. The three brothers barrelled through their roles both in terms of their singing and acting and of the remaining cast it was a shame that the singing of the Night Watchmen – Michel de Souza, Jihoon Kim and Adrian Clarke – was obscured by, from where I was sitting, them singing from the back of the auditorium.

I can’t say that the Orchestra of the Royal Opera have that instinctive ‘feel’ for Strauss’ music as some of their German counterparts but Symon Bychkov drew some of the richest and warmest playing from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera that I have heard in quite a while. Perhaps they were inspired by Bernard Haitink’s attendance as Bychkov produced a level of transparency and coaxed a range of dynamics and colour from the players that was one of the highlights of the evening. My one reservation, as it has been with other performances of FroSch, is that I wish conductors would give the music more time to breathe. Again that magical cello moment in the Second Act felt rushed rather than revelled in which meant that when it returns – in a more frantic guise – in the Emperor’s scene that follows, the emotional impact is lost.

FroSch will never be an easy opera to direct. Its mixture of fairytale and morality shot through with the contemporary obsession with psychoanalysis makes it an almost impossible story to tell. Like Carsen’s production in Vienna, clearly Guth took as his starting point the idea of dreams and their interpretation. Unlike Carsen, his sense of narrative became confused with almost overburdened and incessant symbolism that undermined any sense of real character development.

Was it a dream? Was it a hallucination?

But it wasn’t so much too hard to tell what Guth was trying to say than Guth not clearly knowing himself. Whereas Vienna, Munich, Copenhagen and even Kent’s production for the Mariinsky provided a clearer narrative framework with success to a greater or lesser degree, Guth provided a single set. The monotony of the sanatorium-cum-bedroom set was relieved only by a rotating back wall offering more often than not less than sophisticated imagery and a conveyor belt which seemed more about getting props on and off set quickly that adding any depth to the storytelling. And in an age of animation of the likes of the recent Don Giovanni, Müller’s video designs had an infantile but-not-in-an-intentional-way feel to them.

Having the Empress mirror or mimic the Dyer’s Wife to portray both the duality of their personalities as well as the opposing forces that they represented was never truly defined beyond the basic. Its sense of pantomime never developed into a more effective and powerful counterpoint between the two characters and those around them. Personally I fancied that the Nurse – in some kind of fantasy-stoke-psychoanalytical way – was some kind of succubus but I don’t agree with Guth’s premise that the Nurse “strives” for evil but only does good.

And while the use of dancers as gazelles and the Falcon was inspired at the beginning – as was Barak preparing a skin of a white gazelle – it quickly paled as a device. Their constant appearance symbolised not so much the characters and their alter egos than Guth’s lack of inspiration. Similarly Keikobad’s ‘death’ at the end seemed superfluous and gestural rather than dictated by any narrative and the dilettante playboy was unbelievable not because he wasn’t either naked or semi-clothed as in other productions, but because he looked like he had stepped straight from a Noel Coward play, devoid of any sexuality or allure.

Finding a convincing ending for this opera is of course the real challenge. I have yet to see a truly convincing denouement but this one left me completely non-plussed. Revealing all the characters sitting as members of a wedding party complete with judge had no connection with the drama that had just unfolded on the stage. Nor did the subsequent tableau of the children, surrounding the protagonists and looking to all intent and purpose as if they were either about to embark to Salzburg to sing Doe-A-Deer or re-enact that famous scene from Titanic.

As I mentioned the closing moments with the Empress at the window and the Nurse looking back at the audience might have left us with a visually arresting final image, but its effect was – I think – more luck than calculated storytelling from the director.

And ultimately a production that fails to tell the story clearly or at least intelligently, distracts from the overall impact.

Sadly for me then, this production promised both before and from the start so much to look forward to. Perhaps my expectation was raised too high before and dashed as quickly.

But I have heard it said that it sounded ravishing from other parts of Covent Garden. Perhaps I should go back one last time.

But close my eyes.


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.


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

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