BERLIN: Die Frau ohne Schatten
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In Review > International

Die Frau ohne Schatten

Staatsoper im Schiller Theater

In Review Berlin Frau Schatten lg 717
Michaela Schuster and Camilla Nylund in Frau at Berlin’s Staatsoper
© Hans Jörg Michel

CAN AN OPERA fall victim to its own excellence? Deutsche Staatsoper’s transfer of Claus Guth’s Frau ohne Schatten, the centerpiece of this year’s Easter Festtage (seen April 16), raises the question. 

In recent years, Die Frau ohne Schatten—Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s fantastical 1919 collaboration—has assumed a place as the composer’s crowning achievement. During Strauss’s 150th birthday celebrations in 2014, Frau formed the centerpiece of opera seasons in London, Munich and Leipzig; a Met revival of Herbert Wernicke’s dazzling 2001 production emerged as one of the high points of the 2013–14 season. In today’s Europe, it is increasingly common for a company to wheel out a new Frau to make a statement. It’s easy to see why. Not only does Frau call for five virtuoso singers for the punishing main roles; it is virtually impossible to stage (according to Hofmannsthal’s detailed instructions). Most important, however, the shimmering music that Strauss distributes over three long acts is consistently dazzling and inspired. In terms of melodic inspiration and orchestral invention, one could argue that nothing in the Strauss canon holds a candle to Frau. Sure, Salome and Elektra are bolder in their quicksilver intensity, and Rosenkavalier has never been outdone in terms of bittersweet elegance. But Frau stands alone as a searing and psychologically astute dissection of love, struggle and sacrifice. 

Musically speaking, everything about the Staatsoper’s Frau was ravishing. Camilla Nylund, who opened the season here as a powerful Fidelio Leonore, outdid herself as the shadowless Empress, harnessing her liquid silver soprano for a powerful role debut. Iréne Theorin, the powerhouse Swedish soprano who sang a memorable Brünnhilde here in 2013, tackled the Dyer’s Wife with gripping self-assurance, charting her impetuous character’s journey from personal anguish to selfless love with her rich, wildly flexible voice. Michaela Schuster made a steely, brazen Nurse, the scene-stealing and morally ambiguous figure to whom Strauss gives the most dramatically expressive (and arguably least musical) material. As is usual for Strauss, women pretty much run the show; but Frau also contains two of Strauss’s best-written male roles. Wolfgang Koch, a veteran Barak—he’s sung it in Salzburg and Munich—once again lent his majestically dark, lyrical bass and sensitive diction to this heartbreaking role. As the ardor-filled Emperor, Burkhard Fritz, who recently struggled in the Staatsoper’s revival of Tannhäuser, sang with the perfect combination of passion and nobility. 

The Staatskapelle Berlin had been getting a workout over these Festtage, with a revival of Dmitri Tcherniakov’s popular production of Parsifal sharing the program with Frau. Here, they played with aristocratic grandeur, turning out an expertly prepared, richly detailed performance for Zubin Mehta, who, at eighty years old, was leading the work for the first time. That Mehta was able to elicit such playing from nearly all sections of the orchestra was highly impressive. (The percussion alone was somewhat lacking, which may have simply been due to the acoustic limitations of the Schiller Theater.) Unfortunately, the lush, luxuriant sound Mehta brought to the evening was ill-matched to the work in question. The level of refinement and elegance would have been welcome in Rosenkavalier or Arabella, but here it seemed conspicuously out of place. With its shimmering and fantastical details, Frau should glisten and darkly glow. In lieu of rich velvet, we got silky smoothness. Instead of an urgent swell, we got plodding tempos and a mannered approach. Given the caliber of the vocal and orchestral forces, it was a frequently frustrating experience. At its best, Frau is a fearless and profoundly human work—messy, demanding and visceral. Here it sounded declawed—a stuffed jaguar in a window display. Mehta seemed to revel in the score’s virtuosity to the exclusion of any real engagement with the work as Musikdrama, with the result that over the course of this long evening (the performance clocked in at four hours and twenty minutes), the music often registered as nothing more than extremely pretty.   

Strauss and Hofmannsthal considered Frau a work of Maschinentheater on par with Zauberflöte. Claus Guth’s severe production deliberately worked against that conception. In his Victorian Gothic staging, the Empress was confined to a mental asylum, which rendered the action little more than a hallucination. It certainly would be self-defeating to try and take Hofmannsthal’s stage directions at face value; then again, would it be too much to ask directors to stop trying to “save” Frau with recourse to the insanity defense?  —A. J. Goldmann 

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