The Emperor – Jon Villars
The Empress – Eva-Maria Westbroek
The Nurse – Jane Henschel
Barak – Franz Hawlata
Barak’s Wife – Christine Brewer
The Spirit-Messenger – Ralf Lukas
Voice of the Apparition of Youth – Ryan MacPherson
Voice of the Falcon, Guardian of the Threshold of the Temple – Elena Tsallagova
Voice from Above – Jane Henschel
The One-Eyed – Yuri Kissin
The One-Armed – Gregory Reinhart
The Hunchback – John Easterlin
Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris
Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine
Children’s Choir of the Opéra National de Paris
Alessandro di Stefano (chorus master)
Gustav Kuhn (conductor)
Robert Wilson (producer and designer)
Giuseppe Fregeni (co-producer)
Christope Martin (co-designer)
Moidele Bickel (costumes)
Andreas Fuchs (lighting)
Strauss’s operas broadly tend to be either Wagnerian or Mozartian. One of the many extraordinary things about Die Frau ohne Schatten – or La femme sans ombre, as it was generally called at the Paris Opéra – is that it manages to be both. It certainly qualifies as post-Wagnerian music drama in terms of the leitmotivic writing that both spans and in large part constitutes the work’s structure. The descent of the Empress and Nurse from the spirit world to that of humanity is surely a conscious homage to Das Rheingold’s descent to Nibelheim and the night-watchmen (choral rather than solo) at the end of Act I cannot but recall Die Meistersinger, whilst the trials of the opera’s two couples are a clear and acknowledge reference to The Magic Flute. Wagner and Mozart combine in the musico-dramatic opposition between spirit and human world and in the clear progression from the former to the latter: a homage to and development of the stories both of Brünnhilde and of Tamino and Pamina. The epic Wagnerian element is most to the fore during the first two acts, with the Mozartian trials reserved for the third. However, this in no sense prevents Strauss from continuing that quasi-expressionistic writing which may surprise the listener aware that Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos (in part) precede Die Frau. The polytonalism on offer here, although more sparing than that of Elektra, is every bit as ‘advanced’. This may seem less odd when we also consider the almost contemporary, all-too-readily underestimated Nietzschean (Anti-Christian) tone-poem, An Alpine Symphony¸ which ought already to have brought into question Strauss’s alleged ‘reversion’ in and after Rosenkavalier. In any case, Strauss – and to some extent, Hofmannsthal – is so often found to be playing with the history of music and of musical drama, ever more explicitly until its ultimate treatment in Capriccio.
The musical forces required in Strauss’s opera are huge too: the various choirs, the violas and ‘cellos split as well as the violins, the wind- and thunder-machines, quadruple winds and so forth. Like the Schoenberg of the Gurrelieder or the Op.8 Orchestral Songs, however, Strauss draws from a vast orchestral palette with chamber-music restraint as well as overpowering near-bombast. The colouristic variegation of the score remind us that he is a contemporary of Debussy and Bartók. Then, of course, there are the heavy demands placed upon the solo voices, not least the typically merciless writing for the tenor Emperor. Moreover, the manifold ambiguities in Hofmannsthal’s libretto – how should one weight the post-Wagner and Magic Flute elements respectively? – provide all sorts of pitfalls for directors. This, then, is not an easy work to perform, and resounding successes have not been so many.
During the first half of the first act, I had my doubts, and feared that we might be in for a prolonged evening. Gustav Kuhn revealed a myriad of colours from the orchestra, but his conducting otherwise came across as rather stiff. This seemed to match all too well the predictably static nature of Robert Wilson’s Japanese-influenced production, although already this exerted an undeniable theatrical fascination. Not long after reaching Barak’s hut, however, Kuhn appeared better able to think in long phrases and periods, and this transmitted itself to the orchestra and thence to the audience (or at least to this member thereof). Wilson’s production truly came into its own from this point onwards, both doing something quite different from the music and yet in tune with its demands. Indeed, one of the most impressive aspects of the production – and so lamentably rare in opera – was the attention Wilson and his team paid to the score. Movement, colour, and transformation were clearly, if sometimes surprisingly, connected to the orchestra in particular. If the production was not merely the obedient servant of the music – and why should it be? – nor did it ever jar. The designs were generally simple but powerful, not least in the striking use of different colours and their interactions both within and between scenes. There was much that I could not claim to ‘understand’, but to attempt this rather seemed to be missing the point, for I could tell that there was something purposeful, intelligent, and often quite magical going on: something which need not necessarily be translated into words. (After all, the same is often said, and not without reason, of music.) The choreographic direction of the falcon in particular impressed: here was beguiling and perhaps threatening mystery. Humour was present too, in the guise of Barak’s ghastly ne’er-do-well brothers, here portrayed as clowns. Their vocalisation was as impressive as their staged portrayal, indicating commendable attention to detail in depth as well as breadth of casting.
I do not think there was a weak link in the cast – which, in this of all operas, is a signal achievement. It was notable, moreover, that the improvement during the first act I mentioned in terms of the conducting was reflected, if perhaps less dramatically, in terms of the singing. For instance, Eva-Maria Westbroek’s pitching was initially somewhat approximate, but this problem seemed to disappear. Henceforth, she proved a ravishing Empress, thoughtful too in her transition from spirit to woman; her tone developed in tandem with her character. In the thankless role of the Emperor, Jon Villars was heroic if not exciting. I could have imagined a reading with greater variety of shading but, given the orchestral torrents raging against him, that is far easier said than done. Villars’s tone was strong and secure, and there was never any question of him failing to sustain his line. Franz Hawlata was a wonderful Barak. True, there were moments when his tone sounded just a little threadbare, but they were but moments and in a sense they enabled his humanity to shine through all the more. What a difference there is between such grateful writing for the baritone and that for the tenor! Christine Brewer was fully equal to the demands of Barak’s Wife. It was quite an achievement of the production, given her usual cheerful nature, to render her so severe of aspect earlier on; it was also quite an achievement on her part for her to portray this musically. Her tone blossomed like that of the Empress, for we should remember that Barak’s Wife gains immeasurably in humanity through her eventual appreciation of how close she comes to losing it through the near-sale of her shadow.
And then there was Jane Henschel, in the extraordinary role of the Nurse. After seeing her in Elektra at the Deutsche Oper in December, I wrote: ‘Jane Henschel is not the sort of artist to give so searingly nasty a reading of Klytämnestra as, say, Felicity Palmer.’ I confess that I misjudged her – or the production, which might have been urging her to accomplish something different; for here, as the Nurse, she positively oozed expressionistic, other-worldly malevolence. How clever Strauss’s writing is in this respect, since the part barely boasts a melody yet sears itself nevertheless into the memory as something quite different, allied to the darker, nocturnal realm otherwise only heard orchestrally. Henschel was every inch the vocal manifestation of this dangerous, perhaps evil presence, perfectly underlined by her menacing though never unduly exaggerated stage demeanour. The choral parts were all splendidly taken too, with a special mention due to the young singers, who sounded as children without ever tending towards the jejune or, as can often be the case, the verbally incomprehensible. Chorus-master Alessandro di Stefano had clearly done his preparatory work very well indeed.
For the orchestra, I have nothing but praise. The kaleidoscopic turns of Strauss’s extravagant orchestration held no fears whatsoever for the Parisian players. They sounded like a first-class international orchestra, which is of course what they are, although opera orchestras can often be underestimated in this respect. (Not for nothing is Pierre Boulez to conduct one of their symphonic concerts this season.) I should stress ‘international’, because, the concern for colour aside – and in any case this is probably more to be attributed to Kuhn – there was nothing especially ‘French’ about their sound. This may be regretted, but there is to be no going back to the days of those old Désormière and Ingelbrecht recordings; to attempt to do so would indeed represent an especially perverse form of historicism (which probably means that someone will soon inflict it upon us). If the orchestra lacked the quintessentially old German sound of the most natural of Straussian orchestras, such as, in their different ways, the Staatskapelle Dresden or the Vienna Philharmonic, it boasted far more than its undeniable and at times staggering virtuosity. The strings glowed yet were duly incisive. The production nicely highlighted the second – after Don Quixote – of Strauss’s almost-cello-concerti by having the soloist quite mesmerisingly hold our visual as well as aural attention on stage. Woodwind colour both complemented and sang out solistically in a variety of combinations. The brass and percussion did everything that could have been asked of them. However extreme the orchestral demands, the ensemble never lost a cultured sound, never sounded brash, which is as it should be. If Kuhn’s concern for colour was sometimes at the expense of a stronger feeling of line, this should not be exaggerated, at least not from the second half of the first act onwards. Die Frau was better conducted as a whole by Christoph von Dohnányi the last time it appeared at Covent Garden (in David Hockney’s wonderful production), but Kuhn certainly did not deserve the scattered booing he received at his curtain call.
One thing that is unusual, though not unique, about Die Frau in terms of the Strauss canon is that, in Wagnerian and often Mozartian style, it does appear to have a ‘message’ to impart. It would, I think, be ludicrous to claim this of Elektra or Salome – moral homilies concerning familial breakdown?! – but equally to do so of Rosenkavalier, Arabella, or Daphne. This is where the work could easily fall down, for on the face of it, the imperative to procreate is not the most promising of dramatic territory and could start to sound more than a little ridiculous; it might even end up enlisting Strauss and Hofmannsthal in the service of the more reactionary elements of the Roman Catholic Church. This is not the whole story, of course, for, especially earlier on, much attention is granted to the more promising subject matter of a woman’s longing for progeny. Yet what the production managed as a whole to accomplish was to give due attention to both, by imparting a sense of wonder at the mystery of life, rather than by dwelling unduly on the detail. In this, we could all share – and did.