In Review > International

Die Frau ohne Schatten

LEIPZIG
Oper Leipzig
6/28/14

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Thomas Johannes Mayer as Barak the Dyer in Balazs Kovalik's production of Die Frau ohne Schatten at Oper Leipzig
Photo by Kirsten Nijhof
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Jennifer Wilson as the Dyer's Wife, Burkhard Fritz's Emperor and Simone Schneider as the Empress
Photo by Kirsten Nijhof
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Schneider and Doris Soffel as the Nurse
Photo by Kirsten Nijhof

Oper Leipzig's contribution to the Strauss sesquicentennial was a boldly staged, musically overwhelming production of Die Frau ohne Schatten from the Hungarian director Balazs Kovalik. The final premiere of the season (seen June 28), this was the company's first production of Frau since 1965 and offered a sign of this once-obscure work's renewed popularity: the Leipzig Frau was one of four new stagings of the opera in Germany this season, a trove that also included Krzysztof Warlikowski's sleek, star-studded production at the Bayerische Staatsoper that took place (possibly) inside a sanatorium.  

Much of the credit for Leipzig's success belongs to Ulf Schirmer, the company's music director, and the muscular, burnished playing of the Gewandhausorchester (in a slightly abridged version of the score). Oper Leipzig is an intimate house with exceptional acoustics, and Frau features one of the largest orchestral and most demanding vocal forces in all of opera. (The Act II finale here was the single loudest experience of my opera-going life.) But throughout the performance, voices carried with ease — without any audible strain, at any rate — surrounded by the plush sonic tapestry produced by Schirmer and his orchestra. 

With its five principals and many demanding supporting roles, Frau is notoriously difficult to cast, but Oper Leipzig succeeded in putting together a stellar line-up in which even the Falcon and the Three Watchers sparkled. The most impressive of the cast's several role debuts was the astonishing Empress of German soprano Simone Schneider. An ensemble singer at the Stuttgart Opera, Schneider was a headstrong, vibrant Empress. Her vivacity, mellifluous voice and seemingly inexhaustible reserves of energy created a generously scaled performance that was deeply moving. 

The production featured two other strong role debuts — Jennifer Wilson's moving account of the Dyer's Wife and Wagnerian tenor Burkhard Fritz (recently seen in the Stefan Herheim's Bayreuth Parsifal) as the Emperor. With her cutting tone and jagged phrasing, Wilson provided a perfect counterpoint to the Schneider's equipoise and grace as the Empress. Like Schneider, Wilson was indefatigable, although at the end of Act II, the sound of a little strain crept in ever so briefly. The Emperor is arguably the finest tenor role that Strauss ever wrote and Fritz attacked his high-lying arias with polished grandeur. Strauss assigns the Emperor music in just in three scenes, but the character was a far more constant presence in Kovalik's production, which also imagined him as the embodiment of the Apparition of a Youth, the Dyer's Wife's sexual fantasy

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Schneider, Mayer and Fritz (top of stage)
Photo by Kirsten Nijhof

Two veterans rounded out the principal cast.  Mezzo Doris Soffel, whose career has now passed the forty-year mark, gave the crispest, best-acted performance of the evening as the Nurse. With her intensely red hair and matching dress, Doris Soffel played the morally ambiguous Nurse as an elegant charmer and a conniving schemer, animating the character's complexity and confidence with impressive sensitivity to the overall shape of this incredibly long, demanding role. Thomas Johannes Mayer, Bayreuth's current Telramund, brought his sonorous voice to Barak, a strong contender for the most fundamentally good guy in all of opera. Mayer phrased Barak's long-sustained surges of yearning and devotion with beauty, which made his moments of exuberance — which can sound trite — into genuinely stirring expressions of character.

Kovalik, the former artistic director of the Hungarian State Opera, delivered a dazzling production with handsome visuals that featured sixteen different sets by designer Heike Scheele.  The staging was occasionally marred by some baffling dramaturgical decisions — most regrettable was the hurricane of baby strollers that flew onstage during the finale — although there were many stage images that had powerful illustrative ability, such as the drab and seedy mortal realm that looked like Blade Runner, imagined by the GDR, or the separate beds the Dyer and his Wife slept on, suspended over the city as the buildings sank into the ground.  Although some vignettes seemed intellectually perceptive, if not entirely focused, as in the mural-decorated nineteenth-century dining room in which Barak celebrated his Act II feast — was this meant to be a poor man's dream of bourgeois respectability? — or the asylum-style white room where the Emperor sat in a straight-jacket, rather than being turned to stone, Kovalik's directorial scheme was rich in delightfully unexpected and incongruous moments, such as the Jamie Oliver-style cooking show that the Nurse conjured in order to prepare a fish dinner for the Dyer's Wife, which featured a doo-wop trio of children in fish costumes. Outside of the Met's 2001 Herbert Wernicke production of Frau — which was revived in 2013 to deserved great acclaim — Leipzig's is the most impressive staging I've seen of this magnificent work. spacer

A. J. GOLDMANN

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Current Issue: December 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 6