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

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Munich

Die Meistersinger at the theatre in which it was premiered, on Wagner’s birthday: an inviting prospect by any standards, still more so given the director, conductor, and cast, still more so given the opportunity to see three different productions within little more than a couple of months).

Janáček, The Makropulos Case, Bavarian State Opera

Opera houses’ neglect of Janáček remains one of the most baffling of the many baffling aspects of the ‘repertoire’. At least three of the composer’s operas would be perfect introductions to the art form: Jenůfa, Katya Kabanova, or The Cunning Little Vixen would surely hook most for life. From the House of the Dead might do likewise for someone of a rather different disposition, sceptical of opera’s claims and conventions.

Il barbiere di Siviglia at Glyndebourne

Director Annabel Arden believes that Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia is ‘all about playfulness, theatricality, light and movement’. It’s certainly ‘about’ those things and they are, as Arden suggests, ‘based in the music’.

Oedipe at Covent Garden

George Enescu’s Oedipe was premiered in Paris 1936 but it has taken 80 years for the opera to reach the stage of Covent Garden. This production by Àlex Ollé (a member of the Catalan theatrical group, La Fura Dels Baus) and Valentina Carrasco, which arrives in London via La Monnaie where it was presented in 2011, was eagerly awaited and did not disappoint.

Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at Lyric Opera, Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago staged Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette as the last opera in its current subscription season.

L’incoronazione di Poppea, RAO

‘The plot is perhaps the least moral in all opera; wrong triumphs in the name of love and we are not expected to mind.’

Madame Butterfly , ENO

Anthony Minghella’s production of Madame Butterfly for ENO is wearing well. First seen in 2005, it is now being aired for the sixth time and is still, as I observed in 2013, ‘a breath-taking visual banquet’.

Valiant but tentative: La straniera at the Concertgebouw

This concert version of La straniera felt like a compulsory musicology field trip, but it had enough vocal flashes to lobby for more frequent performances of this midway Bellini.

London Festival of Baroque Music 2016: Words with Purcell

As poetry is the harmony of words, so music is that of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry.

The Dark Mirror: Zender’s Winterreise

From experiments with musique concrète in the 1940s, to the Minimalists’ explorations into tape-loop effects in the 1960s, via the appearance of hip-hop in the 1970s and its subsequent influence on electronic dance music in the 1980s, to digital production methods today, ‘sampling’ techniques have been employed by musicians working in genres as diverse as jazz fusion, psychedelic rock and classical music.

Great Scott Wows San Diego

On May 7, 2016, San Diego Opera presented the West Coast premiere of Great Scott, an opera by Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie. McNally’s original libretto pokes fun at everything from football to bel canto period opera. It includes snippets of nineteenth century tunes as well as Heggie's own bel canto writing.

Bellini’s Adelson e Salvini, London

A foiled abduction, a castle-threatening inferno, romantic infatuation, guilt-laden near-suicide, gun-shots and knife-blows: Andrea Leone Tottola’s libretto for Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, certainly does not lack dramatic incident.

Manitoba Opera: Of Mice and Men

Opera as an art form has never shied away from the grittier shadows of life. Nor has Manitoba Opera, with its recent past productions dealing with torture, incest, murder and desperate political prisoners still so tragically relevant today.

The Rose and the Ring

Published in 1855 as an entertainment for his two daughters, William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring is a burlesque fairy-tale whose plot — to the author’s wilful delight, perhaps — defies summation and elucidation.

The Lighthouse at San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle

What more fitting memorial for composer Peter Maxwell Davies (d. 03/14/2016) than a splendid performance of The Lighthouse, the third of his eight works for the stage.

King’s Consort at Wigmore Hall

I suspect that many of those at the Wigmore Hall for The King’s Consort’s performance of the La Senna festeggiante (The Rejoicing Seine) were lured by the cachet of ‘Antonio Vivaldi’ and further enticed by the notion of a lover’s serenade at which the generic term ‘serenata’ seems to hint.

Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2016

Having enjoyed superb singing by a young cast of soloists in Classical Opera’s UK premiere of Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso the previous evening, I was delighted that the 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final at the Wigmore Hall confirmed the strength and depth of talent possessed by the young singers studying in and emerging from our academies and conservatoires.

Pacific Opera Project Recreates Mozart and Salieri Contest

On February 7, 1786, Emperor Joseph II of Austria had brand new one-act operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri performed in the Schönbrunn Palace’s Orangery.

Powerful chemistry in La Cenerentola in Cologne

Those poor opera lovers in Cologne have a never ending problem with the city’s opera house. Together with the rest of city, the construction of the new opera house is mired in political incompetence.

Tannhäuser: Royal Opera House, London

London remains starved of Wagner. This season, its major companies offer but two works, Tannhäuser from the Royal Opera and Tristan from ENO.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

The Empress (Deborah Voigt) and Emperor (Robert Dean Smith) embrace and anticipate the supreme joy of parenthood. Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.
04 Dec 2007

Die Frau ohne Schatten in Chicago

Die Frau ohne Schatten is the story of a being of purely sensual spirit who defies the temptation to do evil, thereby demonstrating a moral soul and achieving humanity.

Richard Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten
Lyric Opera of Chicago; Performances of November 20, 26.

Empress: Deborah Voigt; Dyer’s Wife: Christine Brewer; Nurse: Jill Grove; Emperor: Robert Dean Smith; Barak: Franz Hawlata. Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis. Production by Paul Curran.

Above: The Empress (Deborah Voigt) and Emperor (Robert Dean Smith) embrace and anticipate the supreme joy of parenthood.
Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.

 

Set in some hazy fin-de-siècle fairy tale Orient, the tale is ageless, its symbolic structure based on many an ancient trope and theme, especially beloved in such near-contemporary versions as Andersen’s “Little Mermaid,” Pinocchio and Die Walküre — but Frau could never have been created for the stage before the era of electric stage lighting. There is the matter of the Empress’s shadow (which must not exist until the penultimate scene, when it should be apparent and obvious), but the many other spectral intruders and the pauseless flow of scene to scene and world to world would have defied the pre-electronic stage. Hofmannsthal and Strauss deserve credit for rooting their homegrown myth so securely in a mystic fabulous while making full use of the latest (1919) technology to bring it to life. Companies that venture to stage Frau must gather the finest vocal and instrumental forces, needless to say, or risk falling on their faces — but they also risk disaster if they simplify excessively, if they do not go for broke in the visual line.

All of this was clear to the Lyric Opera of Chicago when they put a new production of the opera (the second in their history) together this fall. The stage is agog with smoke and mirrors, turntables within turntables so that characters and set elements drift apart and off the stage, ominous ramparts and portals whose openings and closings must be calculated to a hair, scrims and smoke machines, cages and lightning bolts of neon tubing, whirling dancers almost invisible in the darkness and startlingly visible (nearly nude) hung from the ceiling or rising from a well mid-stage, singers obliged to perform while on horseback in mid-air, or from a rickety bridge across mid-stage, or behind a distorted eye or confined to a spotlight by fluttering hands, barely seen. The gimcrackery is choice, the stage pictures and the vision of three separate worlds (spirit, earthy, and the imperial middle realm) rather more coherent as well as handsome than in, for example, Herbert Wernicke’s recent Met production.

Another word about the dancers, who deserve it: dance is most often used in opera either as divertissement or sideshow, in any case as a separate thing where one relaxes the ear and lets the eye take over, welcome or unwelcome as that may be. The LOC Frau is a rare and impressive example of using dance as part of the action, enhancing the magic, motile scenery. The dancers never call attention to themselves (as they so often do when choreographers take up direction); they are part of the stage magic here, creating the dungeons in Act III simply as hands fluttering in the faces of those imprisoned, swaying about the Amme in Act I to suggest the world of dark spirits she inhabits, becoming the hands and heads of the unborn children and the flood that sweeps the scene away in Act II.

Die_Frau_LOC2.pngA scene from Act I of the Paul Curran-directed new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten, part of Lyric Opera of Chicago's 2007-08 season. Photo by Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera of Chicago.

The singing is sumptuous, especially from the ladies. Christine Brewer is today’s great Wagnerian heroine, her voice room-filling and rock-solid but never cold; rather, warm, deeply moving, an earth-mother Dyer’s Wife. Deborah Voigt’s Empress is a shooting star spewing Ds and C-sharps into the heavens of Act III and Jill Grove, in a breakout performance, was in complete command as the wicked Amme, one of the toughest roles in the repertory. Robert Dean Smith is evidently immune to acrophobia — and I refer to the Emperor’s tessitura as well as the flying horse. There were a few rocky phrases from Franz Hawlata, generally a sturdy and sympathetic Barak, the figure whose baritone must be the center of this morally centered tale. The twenty small roles were well-handled, in part by having some of them acted (the Falcon, the Apparition) by dancers while the singers stood discretely behind them, garbed in black. Sir Andrew Davis drew all the complexities together to tell this complicated story clearly and mellifluously. The usual cuts were, alas, observed — the show nonetheless ran to four and a half hours with intermissions.

One comes away from such a performance feeling, in the first place, the awe any first-rate presentation of this complicated opera must produce — who was keeping track of which doors should rise and which fall while tableaux and performers floated in and out of them, often in pitch dark? Rare is the military operation that boasts such precision. Paul Curran’s production, Kevin Knight’s designs and David Jacques’ lighting were constantly inventive and astonishing — though I did think the mystic Empress should be dreaming in something classier than a big brass bed, and the upturned umbrella used as a boat in Act III seemed to have strayed in from some other production entirely. These two props screamed “Fix me!” in tones as loud as any brass in Strauss’s orchestra.

I did have one misgiving about the direction: In their efforts to “humanize” a story full of tropes and archetypes, the producers and the actors (one must discuss them here in their non-singing aspects) have given the characters behavior and expression that suggest unnecessary and inexplicable subtexts to the action. We are in a fairy tale world here, where “spirit” beings aspire to human-hood, fish dinners sing, and apparitions seduce. This can be staged “realistically” — as at the Wiener Staatsoper, where the Empress is a modern Viennese lady on a couch talking her way through psychoanalysis — but having chosen, as Chicago has, to give us a fairy tale with all the trimmings, it is unwise to give the characters unnecessary layers: good should be good here, and wicked, wicked. Fairy tale, like our unconscious, knows no half measures.

Awkwardness is most clearly apparent with Deborah Voigt’s Empress, the titular lady without a shadow. Having played the role “archetypically” in half a dozen other stagings, the newly svelte and agile Miss Voigt has decided to get into the swim of things. Instead of sitting in the shadows observing the Nurse’s devious plots and the pain they inflict on Barak and his Wife, developing a moral conscience and, thus, a soul, this Empress is actively complicit with the wickedness, crowning the Dyer’s Wife, flirting with the Dyer, observing the temptations with a cynical smirk. It makes her transformation — the central moments of the drama — more difficult to accept. Grove’s Amme, too, tended at times to convey comic fluster rather than malice in her gestures, which contradicts the assurance of her stated utterances.

But these are minor points in a thoroughly winning evening of opera at its grandest.

John Yohalem

Click here for audio and video courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago.

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):