Opera & Operette
De Nederlandse Opera:
Richard Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten
© Paul Korenhof, September 2008
Also published by MusicWeb International
Richard Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten: (Revival Premiere) Soloists, Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Conductor: Marc Albrecht, De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam, 1. 9.2008.
A Second Life for a wonderful Frau ohne Schatten
At a time when most of the trendy presentations in opera theatres enjoy a relatively short life, some productions seem to last forever: and even seem to get better at every revival. One of these is this Die Frau ohne Schatten designed originally for the Opera in Geneva in 1991, where it had a glorious debut conducted by the late Horst Stein. Even more enthusiastic was the reception at the Théâtre Châtelet in Paris two years later, with Christoph von Dohnányi conducting. Perhaps the greatest triumph however awaited producer Andreas Homoki and designer Wolfgang Gussmann, when they revived the production fifteen years later for The Netherlands Opera.
The greatest strength of this performance is the way Homiki and Gussmann reduced this gigantic opera, full of symbols and hidden meanings, into one single, almost empty staging, using only five different colours for the sets. White with black hieroglyphs represents the realm of Keikobad and his ghosts, where everything is clear and transparent, and where shadows do not exist. Here the opening scène, when the Nurse almost literally emerges out of the set, is a real lucky strike and is unforgettable at the same time. The primal colours blue and red represent the world of the Emperor, with the Empress changing from white into blue in a most ingenious manner when she surrenders herself to the world of the human beings, while red is used for gigantic arrows (the feathers of the 'red falcon'?), gradually threatening to suffocate the Emperor. Yellow is reserved for Barak and the 'common people', as a symbol of earth, mud and craftsmanship. Apart from the red arrows, the set consists only of two gigantic black and white walls ending in a black space - which may be 'nothing' as well as 'eternity' - some yellow boxes and a gigantic ball as a symbol of Keikobad’s powers.
Although much of Hofmannsthal's text will always be mysterious even with surtitles, Homoki succeeds in creating an amazing amount of clarity, concentrating on the main characters and their psychic development. His central element is the Empress, sung with great warmth by Gabriele Fontana, who in the course of three long acts evolves from frailty and selfishness into a person capable of compassion and love for humanity. Her counterpoint is the Nurse, sung with chilling authority by Doris Soffel, who loses more of her grip on the situation as her pupil the Empress, develops more character. But the most impressive interpretation came from Evelyn Herlitzius as the Dyer's Wife. Seemingly effortless, her dramatic soprano rose over the greatest orchestral climaxes, while at the same time she managed to give a most convincing portrayal of a simple woman, lonely and frustrated by turns, until the moment where she realises that when luck presents itself, all you have to do is to grasp it.
On the male side, the veteran Terje Stensvold was a moving and surprisingly youthful Barak, supported by Torsten Hofmann, Roger Smeets and Alexander Vassiliev with fine performances as his three brothers. The radiant tenor of Klaus Florian Vogt sounded very well in the taxing part of the Emperor, although he could not completely avoid the impression that his lyrical voice had reached its limits with this part. The Netherlands Opera was less lucky with the singers for some of the smaller parts, but within the scale of the whole production these were details of minor importance: especially so because for the greater part of this very long evening, most of the attention went to the really astonishing playing by the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra. They produced overwhelming tutti and really brilliant solo parts, especially in a breathtaking opening of the great scene of the Emperor by the first violoncello. Responsible for all this was Marc Albrecht, making an impressive debut in Amsterdam. His colourful handling of the climactic moments demonstrated all of his talents as a musical authority, but there was real magic too whenever the score called for some hints of chamber music. Die Frau ohne Schatten will always be a difficult opera and the third act with its choruses of 'unborn children' is certainly not the most inspired product of the cooperation between Strauss and Hofmannsthal. But with a conductor like Marc Albrecht one can cherish every minute of a very long evening.