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Strauss’ impossible opera in Edinburgh

Though the grandest and most dramaturgically ambitious of his operas, Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten is the one that most consistently eludes a convincing staging, and musically, challenges aren’t often surmounted. Walking into the opera’s opening night at the Edinburgh Festival in a Mariinsky Opera production, no seasoned Straussian would hope for a triumph. It never happens. One goes to witness the might of the attempt.

The incredibly dense dramaturgy offers endless possibilities. No  production looks or plays like any other. Though director Jonathan Kent brings to the piece any number of sound ideas, Valery Gergiev’s conducting revealed a more steel, more dissonance and less upholstery than any performance or recording that I’ve encountered.  It was extremely compelling.

It’s widely thought that Strauss didn’t look back after going to the harmonic abyss with Elektra. But most of his subsequent operas have at least one Elektra moment, and this score has lots of them. The playing wasn’t great. One Philadelphia Orchestra member, viewing the show on a day off from its current tour, described the playing as “a free for all.” I agree. But strangely, this wasn’t a bad thing, but an element that gave the opera a feverish sense of importance.

 “It doesn’t get any tidier,” I said to my companion at the end of Act II. By that time, the production had been jumping between an ornate spirit world and a more modern, blue-collar reality with a modern truck-like vehicle onstage. Characters were portrayed as existing simultaneously in alternate realities – a good idea, but not one that hardly simplified matters. Most stage pictures were enabled by a scrim, onto which floods of computerize imagery was projected, from a giant falcon flying into the audience to clouds, smoke, water and apocalyptic fire. Of course, the score overloads the ears as few others can. Keep the audience overstimulated visually and maybe it won’t ask the one question that most bedevils Die Frau 0hne Schatten: “Why?”

All the mature Strauss operas that lead up this one are completely at home on the stage, but the wholly original world librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal attempted to create often feels like a work so preoccupied with its own cerebral poetry that it fails to suggest a central core from which this world imaginary might spring. Magical powers and the logic behind them are guided by invisible rules in The Magic Flute, and more recently, in science fiction literature such as Star War.

But such matters seem so arbitrarily employed in Die Frau ohne Schattan that one can only conclude that Hofmannthal created fiction without the science. And though academics have spent much of their lives analyzing this particular piece, analysis is not what’s needed in the theater. Strauss gave the libretto’s imagery some visceral impact, but in the long run, that’s not enough.

Characters refer to various references to higher powers at work, but we aren’t sure who or what they are. The plot’s primary engine is the Nurse, who guides The Empress from her vaguely ethereal world (in which she can turn herself into a gazelle and back again) to the earthier realms of the dyer Barak and his shrewish wife, who is persuaded to give up her shadow (a symbol of fertility). The shadow must be acquired by the Empress to keep her husband from turning into stone, but balks because the shadow is stained with blood.

You have to ask “why” once in a while if only because these characters offer little to like for the first two of the three acts. Maybe that’s not such a problem for German-speaking audiences, who feel most alive – or a bit improved – when taking a bitter pill.

Of course, answering the “why” question is the job of director Jonathan Kent. It’s possible that some of his ideas were blunted or obscured by the Mariinsky budget, or in this performance, filtered by revival director Lloyd Wood. It has been observed that Mariinsky productions often resemble greeting cards from UNICEF. That moment happened here in Act III when the Emperor is encased in stone amid some of the opera’s most effectively disturbing music that tells you everything about how that should look and feel. Yet in the Paul Brown set design, the Emperor was trapped in what resembled a giant glob of whipped cream.

The spirit world was costumed with an amalgam of influences from the antique civilizations of China, Turkey and the Tartar regions of Russia. Some of the men could’ve done a whirling dervish. As handsome as the costumes were, they lacked any visceral theatrical qualities. The world of the Barak and his wife is harsh and colorless, with lighting that looked fluorescent. Their single room seemed to have many purposes, with a bed on one end and dying equipment (plus the vehicle to haul the stuff) on the other.

The shrewishness of the Dyer’s Wife was motivated in the opening seconds of her first scene: She minds her own business while her husband’s brothers attempt sexual harassment in physically graphic ways. No wonder she doesn’t want to bring children into this hardscrabble world. But the jewels and crowns that The Nurse uses to tempt the wife into surrendering her shadow seem effectively meaningless in their visual incongruity. Good touch.

The wonderful “Oh Happy Day” ensemble of Act II – the one big tune in the opera – was engagingly played as an invasion of raucous kids carrying garish balloons, wearing silly hats and rabbit ears, that was simultaneously infectious (the Dyer’s point of view) and repugnant (reflecting his wife’s attitude). Excellent!

In the final act, when the dyer and his wife are imprisoned in separate chambers like Tamino and Pamina in the trials of The Magic Flute, the vehicle hung upside down over them along with an uprooted tree trunk. Quite effective

The cast appears to have been drawn from the Mariinsky company – both casts, since they alternated during the three-performance run – and that’s taking a huge chance. Strauss could count on having star personalities in his operas at this point, and over the years, singers from Birgit Nilsson (Dyer’s Wife), Placido Domingo (The Emperor), Walter Berry (Barak) and Marjana Lipovsek (The Nurse) are among the many that left their marks. Olga Sergeyeva had the most applause as the Dyer’s Wife in a valiant performance that was reasonably accurate if often labored.

For me, the best voice was Mlada Khudolei as the Empress, who was suitably ethereal (even if the staging often didn’t know what to do with her) but ultimately made her moral dilemma – when she realizes that she’s robbing Barack of his dreams of domesticity by taking his wife’s shadow – the one part of the opera was deeply touching. Olga Savova survived the considerable heavy weather of The Nurse. Everyone else made middling impressions, Edem Umerov as Barak, Viktor Lutsiuk as The Emperor.

The show’s star was Gergiev, not by default but because he earned it. In many ways, this was the most compellingly conducted Die Frau ohne Schatten of my experience not just because of the visceral excitement, but the sense of meaning that infused virtually every moment. Maybe the composer didn’t always know what Hofmannthal was up to, but he certainly knew what he was about, and never has that been more apparent than with Gergiev.

At the end, the conductor was made honorary president of the Edinburgh Festival. He accepted graciously, discussed the role of music in world peace. Then we all went home and received Google alerts about the London Proms Israel Philharmonic concert being interrupted by protestors. It’s hard to know what to say.


  1. I’ve seen one production of “DFoS” in Munich at the Bavarian State Opera sometime last millenium, a kabuki-style staging where I’ll admit I barely followed the situation, since there were no supertitles and I only had the slimmest remembrance of the plot (rulers, babies, dyers, dyers’ wives and such). However, since it was the only time I’ve seen it, I was grateful for the opportunity.

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