I have deep respect for Finn Pollard, of Where's Runnicles, and for Mark Berry, of Boulezian. They're both thoughtful, passionate, and intelligent reviewers whose comments illuminate whatever performance they're discussing. So it's with great interest and curiosity that I link to their very different conclusions about Claus Guth's recent production of Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Royal Opera. Capriccio takes yet a third position on the work and performance.
- Finn Pollard. "Guth's more significant, and problematic decision, is the dramatic framing. We open and close on the Empress in a hospital bed, and the clear implication is that everything else that happens in the entire opera is a figment of her imagination. The whole story is an extended dream sequence. Now, I don't say that there isn't material in text and context which can justify this approach. This is not a production, broadly speaking, where you feel constant violence is being done to the text (though there is more than I was altogether happy about). But I came away with significant objections to it. It was never sufficiently clear to me why the Empress was in this institution.
- Mark Berry. "To begin with, she – and we – are somewhat unclear concerning the boundaries of reality and dream. Is Freud being channelled or satirised? Unclear, and all the better for it, which renders the very ending, in which it appears ‘all to have been a dream’ something of a disappointment. That said, much of what we see in between is riveting. With the best will in the world, some of Hofmannsthal’s symbolism upon symbolism –The Magic Flute really is best left alone – can seem unnecessary; it certainly seemed – and seems – to do so to Strauss. Yet the poet’s idea of transformation gains a fair hearing, or rather viewing, and there is a proper sense of the mythological, even the fantastical, to the dreamed world we enter, never more so than at the spectacular close to the second act, Olaf Winter’s lighting crucial here, and the craggy opening of the third."
- Capriccio has a comparatively low opinion of the work and feels this production doesn't work: Claus Guth struggles to make any sort of statement with the piece, obfuscating the already limping dramatic frame with a jejune hospital sequence opening, and, incredibly, a final scene where the Empress wakes up and "it was all a dream". The Empress writhes with night terrors in the opening scene and seems to be in extreme psychological anguish, though we're not sure why. Then her nurse cooks up this fantastical story for her (in the dream? as a bed time story? as a therapist?), and continues to pull all the strings throughout the opera in the guise of a cartoonily gothic, rocky horror demon. There's lots of playing with doubles and mirror images as the Empress empathises with the Dyer's Wife (or rather the Dyer's wife is a projection of her own insecurities), after the bed ridden descent to the earth, which confirms that the opera in this production is in fact all a delusion of the Empress. Guth runs out of interpretive ideas and the concept becomes more tenuous and ever less probing as the story churns on into Act II, several decisive plot points lacking any obvious motivation or on stage stimulus (e.g. the Emperor deciding he has to kill his wife, the total changes of character in the Dyer's wife, the reason for the nurse's punishment). This can be chalked up to "dream logic" but it feels lazy and doesn't make for satisfying viewing since we don't know what The Empress is so cut up about in Act I and what all these Freudian images are a reflection of in the waking world.
The kind of reviews that make me wish I'd seen the production, indeed.