Monday, 1 September 2014

Oper Leipzig: Die Frau ohne Schatten; Die Feen

[From OPERA, September 2014, 1114-6]

Richard Strauss seems to be one of only a few composers with whom Leipzig can’t boast a real connection. Nevertheless, Oper Leipzig threw itself into Die Frau ohne Schatten for the composer’s anniversary year—a major challenge for a company of this size, and one that was by and large brilliantly met. A propitious piece of programming on the management’s part also enabled a side-by-side comparison between Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s work and Wagner’s first opera, Die Feen (in a revival of Renaud Doucet’s production, new for the city’s Wagner celebrations last year).

The two works share a source in Gozzi’s La donna serpente, but offer fascinatingly different ‘happy endings’: for Wagner in 1834, the human Arindal, King of Tramond, joins the fairy kingdom as one of them; for Strauss and Hofmannsthal, eight decades later, it would all be about the half-fairy Empress becoming fully human. The vexed question of fertility and childbirth plays little role in the Wagner, in which Arindal and the fairy Ada have already produced a brace of offspring. Further links come in the fact that Strauss himself was involved in Die Feen’s first performance in Munich five years after its composer’s death; ultimately, though, Hofmannsthal seems to have been more interested in the Gozzi directly (along with his other dozens of sources), rather than Gozzi distilled through the 24-year-old Wagner.

Doucet’s production has already been reviewed in these pages (see June 2013, pp. 761-2) and had lost some of its tightness by the time of this revival, with a couple of mishaps in the staging and the Gewandhausorchester, in the pit, needing the best part of Act 1 to unite under Matthias Foremny’s baton (June 27). Any opportunity to hear this rarity in the theatre, however, is welcome, even if it does tend to suggest that the appeal of some undeniable musical riches cannot balance out the fearful demands made on the leading couple. And, even with considerable cuts, it remains a long, sprawling evening, whose dramaturgy was not helped by Doucet’s ‘meta’ staging (the whole thing playing out in the mind of a snoozing father figure listening to a radio performance of the piece).

Nevertheless, Christiane Libor, despite an occasional hint of shrillness in the voice, sailed confidently and apparently untiringly through the role of Ada, and David Danholdt, Arindal in Chelsea Opera Group’s performance last March, showed he now has the treacherous role—more thankless even than Strauss’s Emperor—under his control, singing in a clean if smallish Heldentenor. Most of the other roles in the large cast were filled with ensemble singers, with Paula Rummel standing out as a delightful Drolla.

Things were a great deal tighter the following evening for the fourth appearance of the Hungarian director Balász Kovalik’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. Ulf Schirmer, enforcing the cuts favoured by his mentor Karl Böhm, drew powerful playing from a Gewandhaus-orchester on terrific form, its players sounding sumptuous and refined together, while displaying their quality individually in the solos. There was some fabulous singing, too, not least a fearless, tireless Empress from Simone Schneider, whose rich, almost mezzo-like soprano met the demands of the role with extraordinary control. She managed both to pick out the tricky avian coloratura of her opening scene cleanly and to go on to hit the fearsome top D flats and Cs in Acts 2 and 3 with power and apparent ease, and filled out what went on in between with unfailingly beautiful and rich tone.

The production itself teemed with ideas—some good, some less good, and perhaps rather too many overall. In Heike Scheele’s lavish sets, Kovalik makes a distinction between a half-palace, half-asylum upper sphere and a strikingly-recreated, sordid contemporary townscape of flashing neon signs below. There the Dyer’s Wife is obsessed with celebrity: the image the Nurse conjured up for her was one of waltzing couples at an Opera Ball; in a cleverly and amusingly realized vignette, the Nurse steps into a TV studio to become a celebrity chef for the cooking of the fish; and the couple’s bedroom itself is positioned within a large TV set.

In Act 2, we see a different projection of happiness from Barak, with the opening feast becoming a sort of Biedermeier Last Supper. The relationship between the couples was less clear-cut, with the Emperor and the Youth apparently one and the same; the former straitjacketed in Act 3, the latter pulled around in a carriage by S&M minions in Act 2. It was executed with great flair and technical skill, but the welcome playfulness and even irreverence that informed some of the earlier scenes felt out of place as we progressed into an increasingly muddled final act, culminating, rather glibly, in a profusion of prams at the work’s climax.

As for the rest of the cast, Jennifer Wilson, unflatteringly dressed in Act 1 in a costume apparently modelled after a Battenburg cake, took a while to warm up, and the voice is perhaps a little more soft-grained than ideal for the character, but she was able fully to sing her role in the way that Färberinnen now, thankfully, are expected to. Doris Soffel’s red-suited and -coiffed Nurse was terrifically vivid. Burkhard Fritz’s Emperor was solid and reliable, as was Thomas J. Meyer’s Barak. There was fine work from members of the Leipzig ensemble, including Eun Yee You as the voice of the Falcon, which was embodied on stage as a young boy (Tim Englehardt). A fair bit was baffling, but, all in all, this Frau was a very fine achievement.

Finally, a brief mention of the Gewandhausorchester’s Verdi Requiem the next day (June 29), the fruit of Schirmer’s desire to have an annual showcase for the orchestra in concert at the opera house, rather than just at the Gewandhaus across the square. Anthony Bramall conducted a taut and exciting account, with the players and chorus on thrilling form. The soloists were Viktoria Yastrebova (a Leipzig Tosca), Marianna Pizzolato, Aquiles Machado and Milcho Borovinov (a member of the ensemble, and also an estimable Gernot in Die Feen).

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