Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Sie kommt! Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Met

Herbert Wernicke's 2001 production of Strauss's monumental Die Frau ohne Schatten is on stage again at the Metropolitan Opera, for the first time in a decade. You should go if you can! In the comments below, I complain about any number of details, some more important than others, but nothing I say should keep you from seeing this generally well-performed revival of a great opera that isn't staged nearly enough.

Why isn't it performed all that often? Well, its comparative unpopularity and length are two factors, but much more importantly, it's difficult to find five singers who can sing the crazy demanding leads, and it's enormously expensive to stage, between the scenic requirements, the size of the orchestra, those five leads, and the eight or ten small roles that still need to be cast with good singers.

Christine Goerke (Dyer's wife) and Johan Reuter (Barak)
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The Met production has an appealingly drab and humble set for Barak's house, set in more or less modern times and featuring, among other things, a run-down looking refrigerator from which the characters occasionally pull out, and drink, a beer.

Act III - The Nurse about to be banished. 
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

By contrast, there's an absolutely gorgeous set for the world of the Emperor and Empress. It's a huge box mirrored top, bottom, and sides, with effects done entirely with lighting. There's nothing in the way of physical properties or furniture at all, just the glowing mirrored box.

The production photos do not do the set justice, and I really understand why the Met decided against an HD broadcast of this one. They'd be doing a lot of closeups; the spirit world Personregie leaves something to be desired, and I am sure this set looks best when you can see the whole thing.

I have a whole bunch of minor and major beefs with the direction and theatrical side of the production, discussed below, many fewer with the singing and just about none with Vladimir Jurowski's conducting. Although one friend remarked that he hoped Jurowski would keep the orchestra under wraps more, from my seat in the Grand Tier I heard very few moments when the orchestra covered a singer. (If you care, my personal decibel meter pegged the Nurse's departure in Act III as the loudest single moment in the opera, and it was damn loud.)  I thought there was some slackening on Jurowski's part during Act II, but that is also the most dramatically, and perhaps musically, diffuse act of the show. Acts I and III moved along well, and in fact Act III had tremendous musical drama and excitement from the first downbeat.

The orchestra sounded great as well, and played heroically through a very long night. Yes, there were those trumpet clams in consecutive bars at an exposed moment in Act III, but this is entirely forgivable. And major kudos are due concertmaster David Chan and principal cellist Jerry Grossman for their gorgeous solos.

Richard Paul Fink (Spirit Messenger) and Ildiko Komlosi (Nurse)

All of the smaller roles are well sung, although Spirit Messenger Richard Paul Fink's stentorian bass-baritone is starting to show some wear. There's one unusual bit of casting, in that countertenor Andrey Nemzer sings the Guardian of the Threshold. This alternate casting is in the score; I just can't think of another production where this was done.* Nemzer was astonishing, with a very big and rich voice, more a male soprano than any countertenor I've heard before. I also really liked the use of an acrobat to portray on stage the invisible Falcon, who is typically heard but not seen.

The leading singers are overall very good, with exceptions at either end of the scale: Ildiko Komlosi, the Nurse, is wobbly and without enough power, especially in her low register. She just can't register the character's malevolence sufficiently and doesn't make much vocal impact.

Christine Georke and the singing fishes
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

On the other hand, there's Christine Goerke, who is magnificent as the Dyer's Wife. She gives one of the most complete assumptions of a character that I have ever seen. Where too many sopranos sound like shrews when they take on this part, she sings so beautifully and expressively that you realize the Dyer's Wife is young, confused, and vulnerable, lashing out because she is afraid and deeply conflicted about her marriage. Goerke has tremendous vocal range, all the way down and all the way up, and she is a fantastic physical actor. If you have ever heard Christa Ludwig as the Dyer's Wife, Goerke's performance is in that league. And I feel that I now know what the critic Claudia Cassidy meant when she described Rosa Raisa as having "a royal purple dramatic soprano."

The other leads are very good, though none of them quite reach the heights of Goerke. Johan Reuter sings well, but his Barak is little one-dimensional. Barack's goodness comes through loud and clear; I wish he could show some of the pain Barak must feel at his wife's ambivalence and rejection. If you saw his Wozzeck last year with Esa-Pekka Salonen, you may recall that it was a surprisingly sane and amiable Wozzeck, which are not the qualities I expect in that role.

Torsten Kerl, Emperor
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The Emperor must be among the most thankless roles in opera. The tenor has to cope with a lot of difficult singing, but gets very little interaction with other characters. You learn about the Emperor and his relationship with the Empress from his monologues and from what the Nurse says about them. Torsten Kerl doesn't have a huge or especially beefy voice; he sings tirelessly and sounds good, with a bright, clear tenor, but the direction gives him nothing to do at all. He stands around as if he were a stone, even when he's not.

Anne Schwanewilms (Empress)
 Her face looked exactly like this throughout the opera.
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

And it's the same story with Anne Schwanewilms as the Empress. She has a beautiful voice, and sufficient range and volume and flexibility - "Is mein Liebster dahin?" was gorgeous - but her face is just a blank; I spent a fair amount of time with my binoculars trained on her, and I would swear her facial expression hardly varied and that her forehead never moved. She is poorly directed in any number of ways, starting with the way she wanders around that mirrored stage in Act I with her arms extended, as if she were a child imitating a bird, badly.

 Over the course of Act II, the Empress has little to sing when in the human realm, but the realization slowly dawns on her that there will be terrible consequences for the Dyer's Wife and Barak if she takes the shadow. But Schwanewilms expresses none of this physically, missing out on the beginning of the Empress's transformation and maturity.

Because Schwanewilms is so blank and Goerke is so expressive, I was far more moved by the transformation of the Dyer's Wife than by that of the Empress. On record, "Ich will NICHT!" is what moves me to tears. In this performance, I wept for the Dyer's Wife at the end of Act II

And there were other reasons the Empress's big scene in Act III did not have the impact it ought to have had. While I am not a stickler for following stage directions, I cannot believe that the production ignores the instruction after "Ich will nicht" to darken the stage, then bring up the lights again to show that the Empress is casting a clear shadow. Instead, the production does something much vaguer with the lighting to show what I presume to be a shadow on the back wall of the mirror box. They're ducking an easy lighting effect - my high school theater could have done it - that has enormous impact. And hey, they've been yelling about her lack of a shadow for 3 hours 45 minutes by then! Give us a shadow, Met!

Anne Schwanewilms (Empress) and Torsten Kerl (Emperor, turned to stone).
"Ich will nicht!" but are those blobs the Emperor, her shadow, or a Rorschach test?
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

I have also got some issues with the staging of the last five or ten minutes. The mirrored box, where most of the last act has taken place, is withdrawn, leaving the two couples on the lip of the bare stage. Then the giant Met lighting rig is lowered until it's hovering maybe 15 feet above them - shades of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which I would bet is not what Herbert Wernicke had in mind, and is certainly not what I want to be thinking of at the end of this great opera. Moreover,  there's this Kumbaya business where the two couples meet and Barak and his wife make obeisances to the Emperor and Empress. I don't buy it and I think it lessens the dramatic impact of the ending. Perhaps the production team was trying to distract us from the voices of unborn children.

* Update: Henry Holland calls to my attention a 1993 LA Opera production in which David Daniels sang the Guardian of the Threshold.

Huge thanks to BH and JF for asking me questions that helped me get this written.


Anonymous said...

Can you tell us about those "voices of unborn children"?

Lisa Hirsch said...

Best for you to take a look at a synopsis of the opera, for example the one at the Met web site.

Anonymous said...

I mean, how was their performance? Did they need to be distracted from?

Lisa Hirsch said...

What I meant was distracting us, perhaps, from the plot points that require the voices of unborn children. Their singing was fine.