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

Evergreen Baby in Colorado

Central City Opera celebrated the 60th anniversary of The Ballad of Baby Doe with a hip, canny, multi-faceted new production.

Lean and Mean Tosca in Colorado

Someone forgot to tell Central City Opera that it would be difficult to fit Puccini’s (usually) architecturally large Tosca on their small stage.

Die Walküre, Baden-Baden

A cast worthy of Bayreuth made for an unforgettable Wagnerian experience at the Sommer Festspiele in Baden-Baden.

Des Moines’ Elusive Manon

Loving attention to the highest quality was everywhere evident in Des Moines Metro Opera’s Manon.

Falstaff in Iowa: A Big Fat Hit

Des Moines Metro Opera had (almost) all the laughs in the right places, and certainly had all the right singers in these meaty roles to make for an enjoyable outing with Verdi’s masterpiece

Die Fledermaus, Opera Holland Park

With the thermometers reaching boiling point, there’s no doubt that summer has finally arrived in London. But, the sun seems to have been shining over the large marquee in Holland Park all summer.

Nice, July 14, and then . . .

J.S. Bach’s cerebral Art of the Fugue in Aix, Verdi’s massive Requiem in Orange, Ibn al-Muqaffa’ ‘s fable of the camel, jackal, wolf and crow, Sophocles’ blind Oedipus Rex and the Bible’s triumphant Psalm No. 150 in Aix.

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance

The champagne corks popped at the close of this year’s Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at the Royal Opera House, with Prince Orlofsky’s celebratory toast forming a fitting conclusion to some superb singing.

Prom 2: Boris Godunov, ROH

Bryn Terfel is making a habit of performing Russian patriarchs at the Proms.

Des Moines’ Gluck Sets the Standard

What happens when just everything about an operatic performance goes joyously right?

Des Moines: Jewels in Perfect Settings

Two years ago, the well-established Des Moines Metro Opera experimented with a 2nd Stages program, with performances programmed outside of their home stage at Simpson College.

First Night of the Proms 2016

What to make of the unannounced decision to open this concert with the Marseillaise? I am sure it was well intended, and perhaps should leave it at that.

La Cenerentola, Opera Holland Park

In a fairy-tale, it can sometimes feel as if one is living a dream but on the verge of being awoken to a shock. Such is life in these dark and uncertain days.

Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno in Aix

The tense, three hour knock-down-drag-out seduction of Beauty by Pleasure consumed our souls in this triumphal evening. Forget Time and Disillusion as destructors, they were the very constructors of the beauty and pleasure found in this miniature oratorio.

Pelleas et Mélisande in Aix

Three parallel universes (before losing count) — the ephemeral Debussy/Maeterlinck masterpiece, the Debussy symphonic tone poem, and the twisted intricacies of a moldy, parochially English country estate.

Siegfried, Opera North

This, alas, was where I had to sign off. A weekend conference on Parsifal (including, on the Saturday, a showing of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Parsifal film) mean that I missed Götterdämmerung, skipping straight to the sequel.

Götterdämmerung, Opera North

The culmination of Opera North’s “Ring for Everyone”, this Götterdämmerung showed the power of the condensed movement so necessary in a staged performance - each gesture of each character was perfectly judged - as well as the visceral power of having Wagner’s huge orchestra on stage as opposed to the pit.

Le nozze di Figaro, Glyndebourne

Michael Grandage's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, which was new in 2012, returned to Glyndebourne on 3 July 2016 revived by Ian Rutherford.

Cosi fan tutte at the Aix Festival

Said and done the audience roared its enjoyment of the performance, reserving even greater enthusiasm to greet stage director Christophe Honoré with applauding boos and whistles that bespoke enormous pleasure, complicity and befuddlement.

In Parenthesis, Welsh National Opera in London

‘A century after the Somme, who still stands with Britain?’ So read a headline in yesterday’s Evening Standard on the eve of the centenary of the first day of that battle which, 141 days later, would grind to a halt with 1,200,000 British, French, German and Allied soldiers dead or injured.

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):