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Gabriele Fontana (Die Kaiserin), Doris Soffel (Die Amme) [Photo by: Clärchen und MatthiasBaus]
05 Sep 2008

Shadowless in Amsterdam

The Netherlands Opera opened its season at the Muziektheater with a stunning new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten, setting the bar very high indeed for all that is to follow in the repertoire.

Richard Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten

Der Kaiser (Klaus Florian Vogt), Die Kaiserin (Gabriele Fontana), Die Amme (Doris Soffel), Der Geisterbote (Peteris Eglitis), Der Hüter der Schwelle des Tempels / Die Stimme des Falken (Lenneke Ruiten), Eine Stimme von oben (Corinne Romijn), Erscheinung eines Jünglings (Jean-Léon Klostermann), Barak der Färber (Terje Stensvold), Sein Weib (Evelyn Herlitzius), Der Einäugige (Roger Smeets), Der Einarmige (Alexander Vassiliev), Der Bucklige (Torsten Hofmann), Dienerinnen (Lenneke Ruiten), Anneleen Bijnen (Inez Hafkamp), Die Stimmen der Wächter der Stadt (Peter Arink), Leo Geers (Harry Teeuwen), Kinderstimmen (Tomoko Makuuchi, Jeanneke van Buul, Ineke Berends, Bernadette Bouthoorn, Hiroko Mogaki). Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest. Koor van De Nederlandse Opera. Marc Albrecht (cond.).

Above: Gabriele Fontana (Die Kaiserin), Doris Soffel (Die Amme) [Photo by: Clärchen und Matthias Baus]


What made it so great? Well, for starters, the DNO had the excellent Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra in the pit under the superb leadership of Marc Albrecht.

One of the many assets of the Muziektheater house is that, with its thrust-like stage, it is wide but not all that deep. And while the orchestra never gets in the visual “way” of the show, the pit is somewhat shallow and therefore affords an “immediate” presence that, with monster scores such as Frau, seems to immerse the listener in the fabric of the sound. This was further heightened by placing the “offstage” voices at the finale somewhere behind the audience, enveloping us in those glorious soaring pages like no other rendition I have ever heard.

But then, the band offered sensational playing all night, with evocative reed work (all those bird cries so characterful, so anguished), a world-class unaccompanied cello solo in Act Two (he got his own roundly cheered bow at the top of Three), rich and throbbing string ensemble work, and some of the best brass tooting this side of heaven’s gates (especially the spot-on horn section). The proximity of the players to us spectators allowed us to revel in illuminating details of the score rarely heard with such clarity, even at the Mighty Met.

But then of course, Strauss’s wonderfully varied and complex score demands not only a virtuoso orchestra to make its effect, but also a commanding conductor who can pull such a performance out of them. And this DNO had in spades with Mighty Maestro Albrecht. Currently Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, he is not known that widely outside of a small musical axis in Germany and environs. He should be. Make that “he will be.” Or even “he must be.” He and the orchestra were the triumphant stars of the night, their ovation before the start of each succeeding act growing in intensity until a veritable shouting match of approval ensued at the final call.

On to the next “strength”: the singers could hardly have been bettered. As the Emperor, Klaus Florian Vogt, having just finished another run of Walther’s in Bayreuth showed off all those qualities that I had so admired in his Meistersinger: a clearly and evenly produced instrument, with just enough heft and bite in the tone to ride the large orchestra, but enough sweetness that you might yet want to hear him do one more Tamino. And, he is young, strapping, and handsome to boot. When is the last time you saw that whole package in this role?

My only regret about Terje Stenfold’s Barak is that it took me this long to catch a performance by this fine baritone, who has spent much of his long career in his home company the Norwegian National Opera. His rich Heldenbariton never barked, was always “easy listening,” and had the all the oomph needed to make this a memorable assumption. His charismatic smile and youthful demeanor were totally engaging, making his darker scenes of threatened violence even more powerful by contrast.

Gabriele Fontana (Die Kaiserin), Klaus Florian Vogt (Der Kaiser) [Photo: Clärchen & Matthias Baus]Gabriele Fontana (Die Kaiserin), Klaus Florian Vogt (Der Kaiser) [Photo: Clärchen & Matthias Baus]

Veteran mezzo Doris Soffel should surely own the role of the Nurse by now. If not I will put a down payment on it for her, for there seems to be nothing in this treacherous and rangy role that eludes her. It goes without saying that any successful interpreter must command powerful declamatory skills and consummate dramatic insights (and boyohboyohboy does she ever have those!), but what really took my breath away was her controlled legato singing, especially at hushed volumes. Out of full rant, she could pull back to caress a phrase with an unearthly beauty. Ms. Soffel’s performance was a study in pacing, technique, and a perfect marriage of her considerable talents with explosive material.

Petite Evelyn Herlitzius packs a wallop belying her stature as the Dyer’s Wife. I encountered her Brünnhilde a few years ago in a Cologne Götterdämmerung and was impressed “enough.” The reservations I had then about her often metallic tone seem to have been addressed by time and experience. Her voice has acquired a patina and good deal of roundness in those intervening years, with no loss of fullness or precision. She hurled herself into an impassioned performance that was one part bitterness, two parts frustration, three parts desperate longing, and four parts loving spouse. To me, the Wife has the greatest emotional journey, and she played her sort of like a tomboyish “Unsinkable Molly Brown” who loses the rough edges of her brash youth and who tames her consuming ego to defer to a true loving partnership. Ms. Herlitzius not only has the goods, she served them up (very) “special delivery.”

Even with having the last big solo scena, the Empress can sometimes pale a bit in interest with the rest of these colorful and demonstrative stage partners. Not so when embodied by radiant soprano Gabriele Fontana. There is a glow in her generous, womanly tone that could in fact melt an emperor-of-stone were it required. At the very start I thought she was maybe working a bit hard, especially with the staccato leaps, all of which landed but seemed more technical than musical. And then Ms. Fontana’s gifts just took off and never looked back, pouring out one melting Straussian phrase after another. I have heard this fine artist several times in this house, but never to better advantage.

Roger Smeets (Der Einäugige), Alexander Vassiliev (Der Einarmige), Terje Stensvold (Barak der Färber), Torsten Hofmann (Der Bucklige) [Photo: Clärchen & Matthias Baus]Roger Smeets (Der Einäugige), Alexander Vassiliev (Der Einarmige), Terje Stensvold (Barak der Färber), Torsten Hofmann (Der Bucklige) [Photo: Clärchen & Matthias Baus]

In smaller roles, tenor Jean-Léon Klostermann was honey-voiced and handsome as the tempting barefoot and bare-chested, white satin-suited Apparition of a Young Man; and soprano Lenneke Ruiten was an effective Falke among her other assignments. Only Peteris Eglitis’s slightly under-powered Spirit Messenger lacked the final vocal and dramatic fire that could have made the most of his brief but important appearances.

On to the last “strength”. . .well. . .let me just ask, when was the last time you heard a production teamed cheered to the rafters? Really and truly cheered? That it happened here was in response to the creation of a beautifully contemporary and conscientious, not “self-conscious,” work of art by director Andreas Homoki, set and costume designer Wolfgang Gussmann, and lighting designer Franck Evin. When the mechanics of the stagecraft so ably partner the thrilling execution of the music and ennoble the intent of the writers, this transcends the moniker “Regie-Theater,” and becomes “Musical Theatre.” (Although new, it is based on a production in Geneva in the early 90’s.)

I have had the privilege of admiring Herr Gussmann’s designs once before with DNO’s memorable Capriccio, an intimate piece. The vast scope of Frau demands so much more, and he has accommodated us with some stunning visuals.

The curtain rises to reveal a giant white wall, floor to ceiling, encrypted with well-spaced black hieroglyphics fronted by the Nurse (back to us) who is attired in a white gown and flowing outer garment with similar markings, her skull-capped head blended with white make-up, and sporting a sort of Kabuki look (an appearance shared by all the serving ladies). When she “parts” the thick wall in the middle, it reveals the basic structure: a raked triangular stage backed by two sharply angled walls that converge upstage, also white, with progressively denser “black-ro-glyphics” as the pattern moves upstage, ultimately becoming totally black where the walls join.

This beautiful unit-set-as-work-of-art with its smoothly moving front walls is effectively deployed with sort of old-fashioned “in one” changes, where action is played in front of the closed walls while the unit is re-dressed behind.

The Emperor’s realm is dominated by giant red arrows that are impaled in the set. At first, the regals (dressed in sumptuous midnight blue) are discovered asleep under a lone red shaft. As his plight becomes more intense, we discover randomly stuck arrows through which he stumbles blindfolded, then later, a loose “prison” of arrows encloses him, and finally he is in a tightly placed containment way upstage in the walls’ “V.” What colorful and meaningful abstractions these arrows are!

The commoners’ realm is started off visually by only the revelation of an enormous school-bus yellow box. Suddenly. . .BOOM. . .the front cover comes crashing to the stage floor and reveals the inhabitants inside among other varied yellow boxes which they proceed to place around the stage to create their environment. The rude costumes appear patched together with slight variations on the golden yellow, their signature color (and apparently the only one they use for their dying).

For the journey to the Dye” the Nurse strips the Empress of her blue coat, revealing her in a strapless, fitted white-’n’-squiggles variation. When they disguise themselves, it is merely with the addition of a yellow scarf (“N”) and short fitted yellow jacket (“E”). So simple, and yet, enough that we believe. When the Wife gives up her shadow, she is surrounded by gesticulating serving ladies who part to reveal her transformed into a sort of “white-ro-glyphic” cocktail dress with black farm boots and a skull cap, resembling the Nurse.

This stunning reveal is surpassed by the instantaneous change after the Empress’s climactic “Ich will. . .nicht.” The Nurse had previously removed her own long-sleeved cape-like covering and draped it on the Empress. At this point the soprano struggles to keep the walls from closing, like Samson between the pillars, and just as she cries out, there is a change to dim back-lighting, she falls forward with a thud, the walls close, blackout, the lights come right back up, and she is discovered prone in a gorgeous midnight blue strapless gown. Magic.

Perhaps the best visual coup is the mysteriously ominous white globe (with black symbols, natch) that descends at the end of Act II, retreats a bit in Act III, then when the stage is cleared, lowers fully and centers in place at the apex of the stage triangle to create a final memorable playing environment. Is it a planet? A kingdom? Life force? Human egg? Riddle? Deus ex machina? It allows us, and the characters, to speculate that it could be anything, everything, or even nothing. Powerful.

Mr. Evin made a tremendous contribution with his well-judged lighting, not only with effective isolations, but also with even and colorful washes well accommodated by the white set. I had briefly wished that the stage floor itself might have been black with white symbols which would have made the shadowless Empress effect easier to achieve (yes, there were some fleeting smallish shadows, but hey, we ran with it.)

All these dazzling visuals would mean little, had stage director Homoki not displayed such an unerring instinct for good singer placement and meaningful, well motivated movement. He used every inch of the stage with imagination and variety. This Die Frau ohne Schatten was overwhelming proof, should any be needed, that a production can successfully be cutting edge, contemporary, and hip while still telling the story and enhancing, nay respecting, the musical values.

This fine achievement gave me cause to reflect that in all the many years I have seen selected performances in this house, I can count on one finger the number of times I thought they missed the mark. Once! The Netherlands Opera has an enviable history of compelling theatre; highly interesting, vibrant, and polished. “Modern” art, yes, but not “Art” without regard to its audience.

Add to that the consistently high musical values here and . . .doink!. . .this seems to be my favorite place to attend opera, beyond the “Shadow” of a doubt.

James Sohre

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