Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

An English Winter Journey

Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.

La finta giardiniera at the Royal College of Music

For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.

Lust for Revenge: Barenboim and Herlitzius fire up Strauss’s Elektra in Berlin

As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.

Semyon Bychkov heading to NYC and DC with Glanert and Mahler

Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.

Lost Stravinsky re-united with Rimsky-Korsakov, Gergiev, Mariinsky

Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.

Philippe Jaroussky at the Wigmore Hall: Baroque cantatas by Telemann and J.S.Bach

On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.

The new Queen of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Here is one of the next new great conductors. That’s a bold statement, but even the L.A. Times agrees: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s appointment “is the biggest news in the conducting world.” But Ms. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be getting a lot of weight on her shoulders.

Falstaff at Manitoba Opera

Manitoba Opera chose to open its 44th season by going for the belly laughs — literally — as it notably presented its inaugural production of Verdi’s Falstaff.

Gothic Schubert : Wigmore Hall, London

Macabre and moonstruck, Schubert as Goth, with Stuart Jackson, Marcus Farnsworth and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall. An exceptionally well-planned programme devised with erudition and wit, executed to equally high standards.

Rusalka, AZ Opera

On November 20, 2016, Arizona Opera completed its run of Antonín Dvořák’s fairy Tale opera, Rusalka. Loosely based on Hand Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Joshua Borths staged it with common objects such as dining room chairs that could be found in the home of a child watching the story unfold.

First new Ring Cycle in 40 Years, Leipzig

Consistently overshadowed by the neighboring Bayreuth, the far less stuffy Oper Leipzig (Wagner’s birthplace) programmed after forty years their first complete Ring Cycle.

San Jose’s Beta-Carotene Rich Barber

You didn’t have to know the Bugs Bunny oeuvre to appreciate Opera San Jose’s enchanting Il barbiere di Sivigila, but it sure enhanced your experience if you did.

Manon Lescaut at Covent Garden

If there was ever any doubt that Puccini’s Manon is on a road to nowhere, then the closing image of Jonathan Kent’s 2014 production of Manon Lescaut (revived here for the first time, by Paul Higgins) leaves no uncertainty.

Fierce in War, dazzling in Peace: Joyce DiDonato at the Concertgebouw

Many opera singers are careful to maintain an air of political neutrality. Not so mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who is outspoken about causes she holds dear. Her latest project, a very personal response to the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, puts her audience through the emotional wringer, but also showers them with musical rewards.

Simplicius Simplicissimus

I wonder if Karl Amadeus Hartmann saw something of himself in the young Simplicius Simplicissimus, the eponymous protagonist of his three-scene chamber opera of 1936. Simplicius is in a sort of ‘Holy Fool’ who manages to survive the violence and civil strife of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), largely through dumb chance, and whose truthful pronouncements fall upon the ears of the deluded and oppressive.

Lucia di Lammermoor at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its second opera of the 2016-17 season Lyric Opera of Chicago has staged Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in a production seen at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Grand Théâtre de Genève.

Akhnaten Offers L A Operagoers Both Ear and Eye Candy

Akhnaten is the third in composer Philip Glass’s trilogy of operas about people who have made important contributions to society: Albert Einstein in science, Mahatma Gandhi in politics, and Akhnaten in religion. Glass’s three operas are: Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten.

Shakespeare in the Late Baroque - Bampton Classical Opera

Shakespeare re-imagined for the very Late Baroque, with Bampton Classical Opera at St John's Smith Square. "Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare....the God of Our Idolatory". So wrote David Garrick in his Ode to Shakespeare (1759) through which the actor and showman marketed Shakespeare to new audiences, fanning the flames of "Bardolatory". All Europe was soon caught up in the frenzy.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Robert Dean Smith sings the role of the Emperor in the Paul Curran-directed Die Frau ohne Schatten, a new production for Lyric Opera of Chicago's 2007-08 season. Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.
30 Dec 2007

Chicago stages fantastic “Frau” --- Another View

Do we too easily take Richard Strauss for granted? The question is prompted by the superlative production of “Frau ohne Schatten” that was the highlight of the fall season at the Chicago Lyric Opera.

Above: Robert Dean Smith sings the role of the Emperor in the Paul Curran-directed Die Frau ohne Schatten, a new production for Lyric Opera of Chicago's 2007-08 season.
Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.

 

Although clearly an indispensable presence both in concert hall and opera house, one pauses only rarely to consider the truly monumental dimensions of Strauss’ achievement. And thus one is doubly grateful to the Lyric for the impressive “Frau” directed by Scotland’s brilliantly perceptive Paul Curran. Its excellence both musically and scenically call for reassessment of the debt that owed this composer.

Part of the problem with Strauss — if a problem it is — is that, although he was actively alive during half of the 20th century, he is unthinkingly relegated to the century before, labeled somewhat too easily of “the last Romantic.” It is wiser perhaps to think of Strauss not as “the” end of an age, but rather “an” end of an era still unashamed to sing the “unending melodies” of Wagner. As Edward Said, writing about the 1993 Strauss festival at Bard College observed: “Few composers other than Strauss have lived so undistractedly through so many conflicting upheavals in musical style and conception and at the same time remained so ostensibly unaffected by them.” Indeed, Strauss in his fidelity to the tonal tradition is sometimes compared with his close contemporary Jean Sibelius as a man oblivious to the eruptions on the musical landscape caused by Schoenberg and Stravinsky. The parallels, however, are severely limited in scope. Sibelius worked in a remote corner of Europe, celebrated for his national idiom by a people still waiting political recognition of their identity. Strauss, on the other hand, spent his career deeply involved in the musical life of Munich, Vienna and Dresden and Berlin, each in its way a frontrunner in the musical grandeur of Europe until darkness descended upon the continent with the advent of National Socialism.

It is, however, surprising to read in the largely positive commentary on the Lyric’s production that “Frau” is the “best,” the “major” or the “greatest” product of Strauss’ lengthy collaboration with writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal, for although it can be seen every few years in this country, it lies far behind “Elektra,” “Rosenkavalier” and “Ariadne” in the number of performances on American stages. “Frau” is a formidable work, and the infrequency of productions is due in large part to the Wagnerian demands of the work. Thus the degree, to which the Lyric met them, makes the staging, designed by Kevin Knight and lighted by David Jacques all the more praiseworthy. The five major roles in the opera call for voices that can sing out over an orchestra of 100 players and have the endurance for a performance that runs — with two intermissions — over four hours.

Although the “Frau” of the title is the Empress, the fairy-tale creature from another realm, it is clearly the wife of dyer Barak who is the central figure of the opera. And in her debut in the role Christine Brewer, heard on December 20 in the Lyric Opera House, was a triumph of legendary level. Brewer, who long ago made Ariadne a signature role, is now a major Wagnerian. Her Isolde has been praised on disc and on stage, and she recently sang her first Bru”nnhilde in a London concert performance of “Go”tterda”mmerung.” She is a fascinating singer, for although she has the voice of neither Flagstad nor Nilsson, she brings a humane warmth to her work that causes listeners to identify with the characters she portrays. Although she in no way overlooked the shrew that the Wife is in her scorn for her husband in the first half of “Frau,” even there she evoked sympathy for a very modern woman in an unhappy marriage. And when at her most vehement she sang [italics]; she never shouted or barked. Her suffering was palpable, and when change came, the heart of the audience was torn with her own in her pain-wrought confession to Barak.

And the Lyric could not have cast her next to a better Empress than Deborah Voigt, a veteran in the role. Friendly rivals perhaps as Ariadne, the voices of the two sopranos blended beautifully in this staging — despite the feeling that Voigt no longer sings with quite the radiant ease that made her famous. She understands the Empress fully and gave full vent to the despair that she feels when told that unless she finds a shadow — i.e. becomes a mother to one of the ensemble of children crying for incarnation — her husband will turn to stone. Her opposition to the Nurse’s designs, her confrontation of her father Keikobad and finally her refusal to acquire a shadow at the expense of the Dyer’s Wife were played with genuine feeling.

Inspired perhaps by Brewer, Franz Hawlata, the only non-American among the five leads, sang a singularly sympathetic Barak, a role strictly secondary in most productions. There was nothing one dimensional about Hawlata’s often too self-effacing dyer, and his love for his wife came across as genuinely enduring — despite her treatment of him. He renewed his pledge to her, recalling: “She was placed in my care for me to cherish, to protect in my hands, to look after her and respect her for the sake of her young heart.” He made clear that the words had meaning for him — and for those who heard them. And his three handicapped brothers, usually caricatures of offish bearing, were winningly played by Daniel Sutin, Andrew Funk and John Easterlin. Tenor Robert Dean Smith, a current Bayreuth Tristan, was a strong-voiced and attractive Emperor, especially when he swept down from above on a white stallion. As the Nurse mezzo Jean Grove almost stole the show with her portrayal of a woman essentially in alliance with the “bad guys” of the story. In a comment in the Lyric’s program Grove described the Nurse as “a Type A personality from Hell,” but cautioned: “If she were singing ugly all the time, no one would pay any attention to her.”

Lamentation over the complex and convoluted plot of “Frau” is commonplace, but here the leading roles were all sung with such insight that they became credible women and men in a story in no way beyond everyday imagination. It is much to Curran’s credit that he brought “Frau” down to earth, stressing that despite their roots in fantasy Strauss has made flesh-and-blood humans of Hofmannsthal’s somewhat fantastic figures. Adding to the unforced fluency of the production was the skilled hand of conductor Sir Andrew Davis, the Lyric’s music director, in whom Strauss has a firm friend and ally. Davis stressed not only the drama of “Frau,” but also the melting beauty of a score that almost a century after its 1919 Vienna premiere stands as the valedictory outpouring of the supreme talent of the last great Romantic. In those magic moments when Strauss reduced the orchestra to chamber-music transparency Davis brought true enchantment to the production. Indeed, the playing that Davis evoked from the Lyric’s orchestra gave meaning to Glenn Gould’s designation of Strauss’ product as “ecstatic music.”

Finally, in a personal perspective on the opening remarks on the degree to which Strauss is taken for granted without adequate appreciation of his achievement. The opulence of Chicago’s “Frau” returned me to the Vienna of 1951, where it was my great good fortune to be a student. I saw my first “Rosenkavalier” in the historic 900-seat Theater an der Wien, the home of the Vienna State Opera while the company awaited reconstruction of its war-devastated house on the Ringstrasse.

I thought often of that distant day after the Chicago “Frau,” for Strauss had then been dead for only two years. My first Marschallin was Viorica Ursuleac who had sung the first Arabella in Dresden in 1933. And on the podium — as he had been in Dresden — was her husband Clemens Krauss, closely associated with Strauss not only as a conductor, but further as the librettist for “Capriccio.” I must have seen Ursuleac in the role four times during that year — with little sense of the music history that played before my eyes. Perhaps it is this early experience that accounts for the enduring role that Strauss has played in over half a century of opera, and validates the gratitude that I feel for this production.

Wes Blomster

Click here for another view of Chicago’s Frau.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):