Monday, 8 May 2017

Staatsoper Hamburg: Die Frau ohne Schatten; Mahler 8

Die Frau ohne Schatten, 29 April 2017, Staatsoper Hamburg
Mahler Symphony No. 8, 28 April 2017, Elbphilharmonie

The sources and influences that helped shaped Die Frau ohne Schatten are countless, creating a complex web that criss-crosses between cultures, centuries and genres. In his writings, though, Hugo von Hofmannsthal hinted a clutch of works by Goethe that were of fundamental importance to his ambitions as a librettist generally and his plan for Die Frau specifically. One of the most important of these was Goethe’s Faust II, which in an essay from 1913-14 he described as ‘die Oper aller Opern’the opera of all operas.
The links between Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s most ambitious opera and Mahler’s grandest symphony, whose second part sets the final stages of Faust II, would therefore seem well worth exploring. Indeed, in a book chapter from 1992, the Germanist Harry E. Seelig noted the common ground in the apotheoses of Mahler’s 8th and Die Frau ohne Schatten, pointing also to the similarity between the winds’ melody at the start of the Mahler’s second half and the melody of Barak’s ‘Mir anvertraut’.
On paper, then, the juxtaposition of both works in Hamburg felt like an important opportunity. My hopes were raised by the fact that among the credits for the performances of the Mahler in the Elbphilharmonie were those for a Dramaturg (Johannes Blum) and ‘Lichtskulptur’ (by rosalie, perhaps best known in operatic circles for providing designs for Alfred Kirchner’s 1994 Bayreuth Ring). To what extent would the Mahler be ‘staged’, and would any attempt, either in the performances of the symphony or in Andreas Kriegenburg’s new staging of the opera, be made to explore any of the possible parallels between the works?
The answers: not at all, really, and no. For the Mahler, the dramaturg credit had seemed to have been dropped from the programme by the time of the performance itself. We just had seven vast rectangular light panels hung from the hall’s ceiling above the stage, on which appeared slowly rippling patterns shifting between blues, purples and greens—essentially the standard screensaver, media player visualiser sort of stuff, presumably realised at considerable cost. Otherwise, despite the lighting being very low (chorus and orchestra relied on lamps to see their scores), this was pretty much a straightforward concert performance.
rosalie's 'Lichtskulptur' for Mahler 8 at the Elbphilharmonie (photo © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)
And straightforward not least in the conducting of Eliahu Inbal, stepping in for the indisposed Kent Nagano. The veteran maestro, now over 80, presided over an efficient, sensible account of the score. He marshalled his forces (some way off the 1,000 of legend, but, with an orchestra of some 150 musicians, still an impressive complement) with considerable skill. I detected an understandable pragmatism in his approach, too, and a sense of what was achievable in terms of interpretation in the circumstances: Inbal was announced as Nagano’s replacement only three days before the first of three performances (I was at the second).
He certainly didn’t stint on the big moments, but this was nevertheless a reading characterised by swift tempos, with little feeling of trying to explore the depth of feeling that the two texts—the Catholic ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ of the first half and the pantheistic allegory of the Goethe in the second—inspired in the composer.
In some ways this felt as much a test for the acoustics of Hamburg’s new hall (and it was the first time I’d been in it) as anything else. As such, it passed impressively. The orchestral sound was silky, rich and transparent, the choruses (the Hamburger Alsterspatzen, the Latvian State Chorus and the Chorus of the Hamburger Staatsoper) direct and rousing, their diction coming across well. Even the soloists, marooned between orchestra and chorus, weren’t as drowned out as one might have expected.
The outstanding contributions came, in particular, from Daniela Sindram’s rich, sensuous (Mulier samaritana); Heather Engebretson soaring as Mater gloriosa (her ‘Komm! Hebe dich zu höheren sphären’ delivered from high up in the hall); Kartal Karagedik, a Hamburg ensemble member, as an ardent Pater ecstaticus; and Wilhelm Schwinghammer impressive as Pater profundis. Burkhard Fritz, alas, seemed to be having a bad day in the demanding tenor music.
Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Staatsoper Hamburg (photo © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)
There were some signs of tiredness in the Staatsorchester, and one imagines a good number players had been in the pit tackling Die Frau ohne Schatten less than 24 hours earlier (this was a Mahler matinée). There again Nagano had been forced to withdraw, replaced at a late stage by Axel Kober, who conducted a reading – presumably as much dictated by Nagano’s work throughout the preparation period as by Kober’s own interpretation—that was similarly swift and efficient, but none the worse for it.
Certainly there was plenty of care and attention lavished on the score. The voicing of Act 1’s final chords struck me as especially well balanced—a small point, no doubt, but one that seemed to underline the difference in care between Nagano/Kober here and Zubin Mehta’s disappointing conducting of the piece at the Staatsoper in Berlin. Nor did the overall swiftness preclude generous phrasing or warmth, and rarely did the music feel pushed. This wasn’t a reading to explore the score’s extremes, but it was one that emphasised its coherence and dramatic effectiveness.
The performances of Claus Guth’s staging in Berlin were still fresh in the mind, and Kriegenburg’s Hamburg production was interesting in being built on a contrasting, if somewhat counterintuitive premise: whereas Guth had concentrated on the action as existing in the Kaiserin’s mind, Kriegenburg chose to emphasise the Färberin’s development. (As an aside I feel duty bound to quote a letter to Strauss from Hofmannsthal from July 1914, which certainly suggests, for what it’s worth, that the librettist wouldn’t have approved. ‘I would like to draw all your attention to the character of the Empress,’ he wrote. ‘She has not a great deal to say and yet is actually the most important figure in the opera. You should never forget that. It is all about becoming human; she—not the other one—is the woman without a shadow.’)
Lise Lindstrom (Färberin) and Andrzej Dobber (Barak) (photo © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)
Here the Färberin  had the stage to herself at before the music began, mumbling about wanting to be taken away, and concluding with the Kaiserin’s own words—‘Ich will nicht’—before the orchestra thundered in with the Keikobad motif. She, or a body double, mirrored the Empress a great deal throughout, and she appeared in both forms for ‘Mir anvertraut’, one singing separate from Barak, the other, apparently unwell, being attended to by him.
It was a general feature of the production, in fact, to have many different characters witnessing scenes they’re not involved in. It’s not a bad idea per se, but a recipe for some very cluttered stage pictures: the comings and goings of different characters, doubles and extras in the Emperor’s and Empress’s scenes in Act 2 were a case in point.
click to enlarge
This too seemed to reflect Kriegenburg’s lack of concern for the clear delineations laid out in the libretto. Harald B. Thor’s set consisted of two two levelsthe upper sphere antiseptic and featuring a series of white angled poles, the lower dark and dingy and clutteredwhich were raised up and down. This allowed for fluid movement between spheres, but surely too much of it: the Empress and Nurse not only made their way down to the human world, via the central spiral staircase, but Barak and his Wife were able to wander up to the spiritual realm whenever they fancied. 
Within this context, the members of each realm were nevertheless well differentiated, those from the spiritual realm in wafty white, often accompanied by a similarly dressed group of extras, against whom the Gabriele Rossmanith’s Falke, in bright red, stood out in sharp relief. I also liked the way the Emperor’s stony trajectory was conveyed by his increasing infirmity. The human world featured grubby costumes, with the occasional appearance of a posse of masked businessmen.
The Konzept had some major casualties, however, not the least of which was the Empress, whose own trial and triumph were reduced to a sideshow. This sense was further emphasised by the fact that there was no apparent attempt to deal with or portray the presence of Keikobad, whatever or whoever one might view him as being. This also meant a more general lack of concern for any possible deeper meanings in the work, which reached its apogee in a disappointingly glib and trite take on the finale, staged—without irony, apparently—as a straightforward happy ending. Those businessmen reappeared, then unmasked and partly disrobed to reveal themselves as colourfully dressed children who proceeded to play ball games and pat-a-cake. The Emperor and Empress played along  before joining the Barak and his wife on a pair of park benches at the front for the quartet.
The finale of Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Staatsoper Hamburg (photo © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)
Despite my misgivings about the production, Lise Lindstrom was impressive in her newly expanded role as the Färberin (and even distantly reminiscent visually of Barbara Hannigan’s omnipresent Lulu in Christoph Marthaler’s production at this house earlier in the year). She’s a fearlessly committed actress and has a striking stage presence. Her voice is a slow-burning lyrical instrument that can take a while to display its steel, but that only helped give the character the extra humanity that the staging demands.
Relegated to also-ran status, Emily Magee’s Empress perhaps unsurprisingly failed to make anywhere near as strong an impression as she had in the role for Guth’s staging at Covent Garden. There’s never doubting her commitment, though, and her gleaming voice still delivered the goods once it had warmed up. The outstanding performance perhaps came from Andrzej Dobber as Barak. The Polish baritone sang in generous, well-filled phrases and with powerful tone, and he acted with a moving sincerity. Though perhaps not strictly a bass baritone (the big Verdi roles are a speciality), Dobber lacked some richness and warmth of tone, but the voice has a directness and honest beauty—not to mention easy volume—that suit the role well.
Roberto Saccà had all the Emperor’s top notes, but struggled with the cantilena that links them together. Linda Watson, who has often sung the Färberin herself, was a powerful Amme here, although not always one with the necessary verbal incisiveness. Among the smaller roles, Bogdan Baciu’s imposing Geisterbote stood out. Some fine things musically, then, but a disappointing staging from Kriegenburg. 

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