Sir Morosus – Franz HawlataHousekeeper – Okka von der Damerau
Barber – Nikolay Borchev
Henry Morosus – Peter Sonn
Aminta – Brenda Rae
Isotta – Elsa Benoit
Carlotta – Tara Erraught
Morbio – Christian Rieger
Vanuzzi – Christoph Stephinger
Farfallo – Tareq Nazmi
Papagei – Airton Feuchter-Dantas
Barrie Kosky (director)Esther Bialas (designs)
Benedikt Zehm (lighting)
Olaf A. Schmitt (dramaturgy)
Bavarian State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Sören Eckhoff)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Pedro Halffter (conductor)
If Strauss’s operas of the 1920s receive far too little performing attention, especially in the Anglosphere, those of the 1930s seem to fare worse still. Quite why is anyone’s guess; no one, I assume, would declare Die schweigsame Frau a greater work than Elektra, but it is clearly a better work than so many that continue to hold the stage. German theatres are different, of course, not least those associated with Strauss personally, so to see Strauss’s collaboration with Stefan Zweig and, at one remove, Ben Jonson, a visit to the Munich Opera Festival seemed like a good idea.
And so it was. One could not reasonably have hoped to hear Strauss in better hands. Not only could I find no grounds to fault Bavarian State Orchestra – not that, in imitation of the third act’s divorce proceedings, I was attempting to find such grounds – the orchestra reaffirmed its credentials as a Strauss orchestra to be spoken of in the same breath as Dresden and Vienna, and arguably more reliable than either, certainly more so than the latter. Precision and warmth – though not too much – were very much the hallmark of this performance, wisely guided by Pedro Halffter, who seemed keen to impart to his account a sense of, if not quite Neue Sachlichkeit, then at least of something that made Strauss’s writing here particular rather than generalised. Pacing was impeccable, quasi-autonomous musical structures coming fruitfully into contact with verbal demands: the sort of thing one longs for, generally in vain, in Rossini. The Straussian orchestral phantasmagoria is never far away, of course, but there is perhaps less overt dazzle in much of the score than in, say, Rosenkavalier or Elektra; Halffter and the orchestra appreciated its subtleties and responded to them in equally subtle yet undoubtedly sure fashion.
I doubt that Brenda Rae’s Aminta could be bettered in any theatre today (although how would one know?) Just as sure of note and line as the orchestra and with greater, contrasting warmth, especially at those wonderful revelations, through the disguise of Timidia, of the fundamental humanity of Aminta, this was a performance to savour. Much the same could be said of her partner in crime – and love – Peter Sonn’s splendidly lyrical, often imploring Henry. Franz Hawlata’s Morosus was very much a character portrayal: too many notes, as it were, lacked a little when it came to the demands of intonation. But such was Hawlata’s identification with and communication of the role, it would be churlish to complain unduly; the audience responded warmly, and it was right to have done so. The quicksilver vocal and dramatic qualities of Nikolay Borchev’s Barber – despite the hideous green tracksuit he initially had to wear – were rightly appreciated by the Munich audience too. Okka von der Damerau captured to near-perfection the disapproving, ultimately amusing qualities of the Housekeeper. There was depth in the casting too: splendid rivalry to Timidia came from Tara Erraught (with, insofar as I could tell, a fine line in Bavarian dialect) and Elsa Benoit. There was indeed an excellent sense of company: no one disappointed and almost everyone shone.
Barrie Kosky’s production: well, it was considerably better than his Berlin Figaro. But I cannot help but think that his matching of high camp – the tasteless pink designs of the first part of the third act, splendidly realised on their own terms by Esther Bialas – and custard-pie slapstick is not really a match for Strauss, or for Zweig. The subtle, even sometimes not-so-subtle, æstheticism of both artists may well benefit from deconstruction. But might not a production that takes to heart the circumstances of the opera’s composition – this, after all, was the opera occasioning Strauss’s fateful letter to Zweig, intercepted by the Gestapo, which led to Goebbels having the composer resign from Presidency of the Reichsmusikkammer – offer a more fruitful, deeper (yes, I know, how Teutonic of me!) mode of questioning? There is no doubting the skill with which Kosky and his production team accomplish their vision; I wish, though, that I could discern more in the vision itself. According to Kosky, quoted in the programme, ‘We have placed our protagonist in a world which swings [schwankt] uncertainly between Mel Brooks, the Muppets, and Vienna’s Josefstadt [Theatre].’ Make of that what you will.
Even for those of us who remained sceptical about the production, however, there was much to enjoy, for which many thanks should go to the Bavarian State Opera. This would surely make an interesting prospect for ENO, whose Strauss record has recently been anything but conspicuous, to bring to London. Now, how about an enterprising company offering us Salieri’s Angiolene, also based (loosely) on Jonson’s Epiocene? Or even a hearing for Mark Lothar’s 1930 Lord Spleen, written for Dresden? (Does anyone know the music of Lothar, a Schreker pupil whom Max Reinhardt enlisted as Music Director for Berlin’s Deutsches Theater in 1933, whether for this or for anything else? I freely admit that I do not.) George Antheil’s Volpone, which apparently owes a good deal to Zweig’s German adaptation of Jonson’s play, also awaits revival. And yes, more Strauss would be much appreciated too: Feuersnot, Friedenstag, Die Liebe der Danae, etc., etc. Opera houses of the world, unite: you have nothing to lose but Timidia’s timidity!