Thursday 25 August 2011

Salzburg Festival (2) - Die Frau ohne Schatten, 21 August 2011

Grosses Festspielhaus

Image: Salzburg Festival/Monika Rittershaus

The Emperor – Stephen Gould
The Empress – Anne Schwanewilms
The Nurse – Michaela Schuster
Barak – Wolfgang Koch
Barak’s Wife – Evelyn Herlitzius
The Spirit-Messenger – Thomas Johannes Meyer
Apparition of Youth – Peter Sonn
Voice of the Falcon – Rachel Frenkel
Guardian of the Threshold of the Temple, First Servant – Christiana Landshamer
Voice from Above – Maria Radner
The One-Eyed – Markus Brück
The One-Armed – Steven Humes
The Hunchback – Andreas Conrad
Second Servant – Lenneke Ruiten
Third Servant – Martina Mikelić
Voices of the Unborn – Janna Herfurtner, Christian Landshamer, Lenneke Ruiten, Rachel Frenkel, Martina Mikelić, Maria Radner

Christof Loy (director)
Johannes Leiacker (set designs)
Ursula Renzenbrick (costumes)
Stefan Bolliger (lighting)
Thomas Jonigk (dramaturgy)
Thomas Wilhelm (choreography)

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Thomas Lang)
Salzburg Festival Children’s Choir (chorus master: Wolfgang Götz)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Christian Thielemann (conductor)

Christof Loy strikes again. After a perversely misconceived Lulu and a still more reductive assault upon Tristan und Isolde, we seem to have reached the end of the line – at least I hope we have – with this Frau ohne Schatten. I see little point into going into great detail , though Loy does in his alternative synopsis, ‘Die Frau ohne Schatten: Eine persönliche Inhaltsangabe’. It would seem that the director despises this Strauss-Hofmannsthal collaboration considerably more than even Tristan, so much so that he declines to direct it all. Instead of the complex drama we might have seen, we witness an unutterably banal alternative, in which ‘an emerging young singer, sheltered and pampered by her well-to-do family is asked to take on the role of the Empress for a complete recording of Die Frau ohne Schatten. … from now she will have to meet human beings as they are …’ All that happens, then, is that we see the singers gather for a recording session in a mock-up set of the old Sofiensäle (well designed in itself, but it is difficult to care very much). At the end, for some reason, the singers take place in a Christmas concert. The claim that this aversion of responsibility somehow echoes Brechtian alienation, Anouilh even, seems beneath contempt. I cannot be bothered to say any more, save that a concert performance would have been infinitely preferable. What a scandalous, arrogant waste! If Christof Loy does not like Die Frau ohne Schatten, that is his problem: why should it become ours?

Thank goodness, then, for the Vienna Philharmonic under Christian Thielemann. If the first act, whilst of an orchestral standard that would have put almost any house to shame, was on occasion not always quite there, the latter half of the second and pretty much all of the third were simply outstanding. Orchestral heft and the full panoply of Strauss’s phantasmagorical colouristic vision (more than once Schoenberg’s Op.16 Orchestral Pieces came to mind) were married to a sense of purpose that seemed to me even to surpass that of Karl Böhm. Moreover, Böhm’s customary cut passages were restored. The VPO’s golden string tone is always – well, nearly always – a wonder to hear, but Thielemann proved as alert to the modernistic, post¬-Elektra tendencies in Strauss’s score as the dance echoes of Der Rosenkavalier. The great climaxes did not want in impact, but there was great delicacy to be heard too. And Thielemann’s ear for orchestral balance proved second to none.

One is unlikely ever to hear a perfectly cast FroSch. Here the principals mostly suffered from drawbacks, save for Michaela Schuster’s extraordinary Nurse. Hers was certainly the portrayal to savour above all others: malevolent, confident in pitch, almost imaginable in a ‘real’ production. Stephen Gould sang well enough as the Emperor – doubling up on stage, or above stage, as a recording engineer – but his phrasing and tone production were sometimes unvariegated. Still, at least he could sing the notes, unlike many who attempt the role. Anne Schwanewilms had her moments, sweetly sung, but too often she found herself wildly out of tune and her voice cracked on more than one occasion. Wolfgang Koch was mostly dependable as Barak, though again there were cracks, whilst Evelyn Herlitzius as the Dyer’s Wife veered between staggering dramatic vocalism in the best sense and seeming inability to sing a single note in tune. There was no faulting her energy, but its application was sometimes distressingly flawed. Choral singing was outstanding, however, a tribute both to the choirs and to their training.

It was the VPO’s show, then, and Thielemann’s, with Schuster the best of a mixed vocal bunch. On Loy, I shall say no more, for the moment, other than that it is a long time since I have been so angered by a ‘production’.