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Der Frosch

This article was first published at The Classical Review on September 7, 2012.

available at Amazon
R. Strauss, Die Frau ohne Schatten, S. Gould, A. Schwanewilms, M. Schuster, W. Koch, E. Herlitzius, Vienna Philharmonic, Salzburg Festival, C. Thielemann

(released on May 29, 2012)
Opus Arte OA 1072 D | 220'
The story of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, of course, does not make any sense. As some of the characters themselves admit near the end of the second act, with an air of befuddled mystery akin to that experienced in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, “Something is happening, but we do not know what it is.”

An Empress, captured like an animal by an Emperor on the hunt, has no shadow, a metaphor for childlessness — or is it? If Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto, as it is often described, is the 20th-century counterpart of Mozart’s Magic Flute, something has gone wrong with the fairy tale’s “happily ever after.” The spirit-world Emperor and Empress (an extension of Tamino and Pamina?) cannot have children, and the altogether human Dyer and his caustic wife (Papageno and Papagena) do not have a whole brood of little children either, mostly through the wife’s stubbornness. The Empress’s nurse, a spirit herself, tempts the Dyer’s wife to give up her shadow (fecundity) to the empress. The voices of unborn children moan woefully within the crackling of a frying pan in the fire, but in the end the Empress cannot bring herself to steal the humanity of the Dyer’s wife, and all are saved. It’s not really a spoiler — you will still be surprised when you hear the music.

In this inventive but strange staging from last year’s Salzburg Festival, director Christof Loy gets around the problem of von Hofmannsthal’s oddest libretto — and that is saying something — by ignoring it more or less completely. No need here to worry about how to stage a broom turning into the youth who tempts the Dyer’s wife, a sword magically appearing in the Dyer’s hand, the earth opening up and swallowing up the Dyer and his wife, a river overflowing its banks, or a boat carrying the Empress into Keikobad’s temple on the moon mountains.

In its place Loy creates a mise en abyme, a set of stories taking place during the first complete recording of Die Frau ohne Schatten, led by Karl Böhm in the 1950s, in the Sofiensaal in Vienna. Loy says the idea came to him when he read about the recording, for which Böhm convinced his singers to tolerate spartan recording conditions in an unheated hall in mid-winter. On a platform, with chorus risers behind it, the singers stand in 1950s attire, while supernumeraries create the sense of interaction between the singers and the engineering staff, in a booth above the stage. An assistant moves the principals around, searching for the right placement at the right music stand.

Whether this production irritates or intrigues will depend on the viewer’s tolerance for dissonance between the story being told by the words and the different one actually unfolding on stage. The latter sometimes recasts the former in an edifying light, as the story of the singers in the recording session is revealed: the escapades of the Dyer’s wife as the excesses of a star singer, the lonesome neurosis of the Emperor as the insecurities of a tenor burdened with a voice-crushing role, the isolated sadness of the Empress as a young singer’s estrangement amid a crowd of veterans.

In a bonus video about the production, Loy explains some of his ideas — “The shadow is a metaphor for the responsibility that you take on in life as a rational being. To me that is the only possible meaning,” he says, for example — but it is not always clear how they made it into the staging. (The boos lobbed at the production team at the end of the curtain calls indicate that some in the audience were left unconvinced.)

Loy’s direction helped Anne Schwanewilms capture the fragility of the Empress, central to his approach (“I always see her as a precious, privileged daughter who is driven around by a chauffeur all the time”) — the Empress’s longing for children, heightened by her awareness that her father, Keikobad, will turn her husband into stone if she does not bear any, is evoked when the supernumeraries are all replaced by child versions of themselves, and again when the chorus of unborn children appears in sailor costumes in the final scene, made into a Vienna Boys Choir Christmas concert. Michaela Schuster creates a fleering, almost vicious Nurse (according to Loy, “a Mephistophelean character: I think of her as a fallen archangel”). The group of cabaret revue girls with large feathers, added to the argument between the Dyer and his wife, was perhaps a bit much.

None of it matters, anyway, when the Vienna Philharmonic renders this most luscious of Straussian marvels with extraordinary sounds coaxed forth lovingly by the hands of Christian Thielemann. Strauss puts the elephantine orchestration of over 160 instruments — the Vienna Philharmonic is packed cheek to jowl into the Salzburg pit — to startling use, like the knot of avian woodwinds and solo strings that accompanies the entrance of the Empress in Act I. Otherworldly sounds go with her reference to the loss of her talisman shortly after, with muted low brass and low strings, celesta, and harp harmonics (the combination sounding almost like a gong). Plaintive solo cello and evanescent strings accompany the Emperor’s melancholy scene listening to his red falcon in Act II, while the clamor of the catastrophe at the end of Act II sounds like it will unmake the world. The whole score is full of moments like this, when one tries to guess what bizarre combination of instruments Strauss has called for and finds out it is something completely unexpected, like a wind-machine. The most pleasing part of the bonus video is the chance to watch Thielemann in rehearsal, a conductor who knows so clearly what he wants: he can get it from just smiling boyishly in the direction of the clarinetist.

This is only the third staging of the opera to make it to DVD, alongside the 1992 Salzburg production with Cheryl Studer, Thomas Moser, Bryn Terfel, and Eva Marton, conducted by Sir Georg Solti (Decca), and a version with Wolfgang Sawallisch at the helm (Arthaus Musik), filmed in Japan (with some regrettable cuts in the score, it features a different cast from his uncut studio recording, which remains at the top of my list). The unusual staging may dissuade some viewers, even die-hard Strauss fans, not to mention the fact that the vocal casting, while certainly good and capable, is a little strained by the score’s demands. Stephen Gould’s Emperor and Anne Schwanewilms’ Empress have a clarion sound, until they reach the highest notes, which shred just a bit. As the Dyer’s wife, Evelyn Herlitzius throws herself at the role with a wailed abandon, lacking some of the gorgeous soaring quality that Strauss, somewhat cruelly, also requires.

Schwanewilms, by contrast, has this in spades, even in the final scenes as she sings to Keikobad, against radiant strings and tender violin solo, followed by the magical deployment of both celestas and both harps with percussion. Michaela Schuster is a malevolent presence as the nurse, both vocally (blazing at the top) and dramatically, and Wolfgang Koch’s Dyer is, quite appropriately, a rather sad sack. The contributions of the supporting cast and the choruses, both the Vienna State Opera Chorus and the Salzburger Festspiele Kinderchor, are excellent.

Jens F. Laurson, Phantasmorgastic, but with Shadows: FrOSch @ Salzburg — Notes from the 2011 Salzburg Festival (16) (Ionarts, August 30, 2011)

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