The first time I saw Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s ‘massive and artificial’ (Strauss’s words) operatic fairy tale Die Frau ohne Schatten performed by Welsh National Opera, programme and posters were garlanded with images by the Belgian symbolist painter Fernand Khnopff, whose enigmatically titled ‘I Lock My Door Against Myself’ is pictured up top, his ‘Sleeping Medusa’ below. The opera’s unsettling, decadent atmosphere, its clash of spirit and human worlds, was not exactly Khnopffed but well served all the same by the spare yet effective and magically lit touring production (and great Norman Bailey sang the role of Barak the Dyer – I’m pleased still to have his singing in Act 1 on an old cassette).
Yet it’s worth remembering that, begun as it was before the First World War, this optimistic fantasy finally premiered in a Vienna stricken by post war austerity. The mood had changed – as had Strauss’s, who, as he waited for Hofmannsthal to get the last bits of text to him in 1916, decided that such monuments were now out of joint with the troubled times and felt ‘downright called upon to become the Offenbach of the 20th century’ instead.
Quite apart from its dodgy moral-majority message that you’re incomplete without children – which can be sidestepped by special pleading that the subjects are really creativity and compassion - Frau is, no doubt, problematic in that it starts out taking the magic seriously in an astonishingly scored first act and finishes by not believing enough in its happy end. But does this justify wrenching it to another time and place still reeling from calamities, a chilly 1950s Vienna of underheated recording-studio halls and drab winter clothing, where a stiff Christmas concert performance deputises for the portentous finale?
That’s director Christof Loy’s solution, and I’m still in two minds about his 2011 Salzburg Festival production, now preserved on an Opus Arte DVD. It does humanise all five principal characters – on one side the Emperor and the Empress who has not yet born him a child, on the other the dissatisfied wife who may or may not give up the shadow the other woman needs and her placid husband, with the Mephistophelean Nurse as conniving go-between. There is, though, one huge problem. I genuinely believe that, for all the mumbo-jumbo, the essence of Hofmannsthal’s plot is rather simple as it follows the Empress’s path to enlightened rejection of the shadow, the realization that she cannot buy her own happiness at the cost of others. Loy replaces, rather than parallels, it with a recording-studio ‘storyline’ that’s so oblique it doesn’t begin to make sense. His exhortation of Strindberg’s preface to A Dream Play suggests that he never intended it to.
Anyway, it’s not my place here to discuss the DVD as a whole, which I’ve done within the constraints of a BBC Music Magazine review yet to be published. I will say that I was alternately fascinated and baffled, never repelled, by the production, but always in thrall to Thielemann’s magisterially beautiful conducting of the Vienna Philharmonic and to the Empress of my Straussian idol Anne Schwanewilms (pictured up top by Monika Rittershaus for the Salzburg Festival).
It’s not a flawless performance, but so expressively right for the translucent not-quite-earthly girl who becomes a deeply feeling human being. Prior to the DVD release with English subtitles, chunks of the telly screening went up on YouTube, so watch and hear, if you will, the Empress’s awakening scene in Act One – that’s a keenly-inflecting Michaela Schuster as the Nurse at the start, and you can decide whether you want to go on to their scene together, a bit of a trial without translation -
and the culminating ‘judgment of Solomon’ scene of Act Three in which the Empress has to decide whether to take the shadow or not. Maddeningly, there’s no dramatic substitute for the usual suspense as to whether the elusive shadow will appear on cue or not, or for the chilling sight of the Emperor petrified except for his eyes; but I reckon Schwanewilms holds the intensity of the drama with her vocal and physical expressiveness. Again, you can probably forego the barky aftermath of heldentenor Stephen Gould’s contribution.
I saw the Met’s Die Frau Ohne Schatten some years back, with Deborah Voigt in the Empress role. I wasn’t taken with her in the role, but I felt it to be my lack. I have limited experience with opera (though in the coming season I am about to have a bit of “immersion therapy”), attending two each year at best. I seem to find solo voice the most difficult of instruments, if I can put it that way, to grasp. Recently, I again heard Voigt in a key role, and again I wasn’t taken with her voice. I say all this, because now, in listening to Anne Schwanewilms, I realize that perhaps it’s not my limitations that were at work, though they are real. I was transported, particularly by the Act 3. I looked to see if she might be singing at the Met, but no luck. I see she is singing the Marschallin in Dresden—with Thielemann conducting; how I wish I could be transported there to hear it live.
Sue, you reminded me that we'd been here before, back in
September when I saw the Mariinsky FrOSch in Edinburgh. Fortunately there doesn't seem to be too much repetition, and anything I can do to promote glorious Schwanewilms has to be worth it. So glad she melted you. Don't miss her Dresden Marschallin as filmed in Tokyo, also on DVD. As my English master used to sigh over Desdemona, 'lovely lady'.
Shows you the state of my memory (though I did have a glimmer of commenting on Voigt once before, forgot entirely it was about Die Frau). I assume this must be the one, but to be sure, the Schwanewilms-Dresden is 2008, conductor Luisi? I've also located the Ariadne you mentioned in September & both are on my wish list for purchase (soon--though as I am heading into retirement, I am trying to be judicious and parcel things out a bit!).
That wasn't in the least intended as a dig at you, Sue; I was more concerned that I'd repeated myself, and found that apart from the ref to Norm on cassette, I hadn't. Yes, it's the Luisi, though the rest of it apart from heavenly Anne doesn't begin to match Kleiber with Gwyneth Jones and Brigitte Fassbaender in Munich or Solti with Kiri from Covent Garden. For topsy-turvydom of the best kind, the Robert Carsen Salzburg DVD has grown on me - maybe the Loy FrOSch will too. Wonder what others made of it.
David I learn so much from reading your postings on opera and music, a delight always. As you know my better half is the one with the operatic knowledge not me. Reading your post brings back wonderful memories of our trips to Salzburg for the festival or Vienna.
I wish I could get my head - and heart - around Frau but I find it the least interesting of Strauss's works. But as always caro David having read your post I may go back and give it another try as it has been a long time since I have listened to any of it. Being a bit of an old foggy these days I'll revert to Boehm and his golden cast.
Again, Laurent, thanks for your kind words. Wonderful indeed in your Roman days that you could drive up to Salzburg or Vienna. I missed a Salzburg chance back in the early 1990s - thought I could hop on a train to hear Muti conduct Cosi while I was in the middle of Kupfer's Bayreuth Ring. But the Wagnerian atmosphere was too strong, I found I couldn't break it, and stayed more or less put for a few excursions between Walkure and Siegfried.
Will - I know what you mean; I've always been fascinated by it but usually repelled by the Grand Apotheosis (only Sawallisch really pulls it off, I think). That Boehm performance is such a classic (Mark Two, I think you mean; Mark One was the 1955 Vienna studio recording on which Loy loosely based his concept). It was the one through which I came to know the opera, and of course Birgit is stunning. Never quite sure about Rysanek myself - such a personal sound. But one plus here is that Thielemann, like Solti before him, insisted on performing the work uncut - I always think that Act 2 especially under Boehm and others feels longer for all the snips.
Nor did I take it as such, never worry about that. Now, as for the opera DVDs: you are incredible—how ever am I to choose? I see that one or two are on Netflix (now, don't shudder too much at that!), but I am so taken with AS, that, unless you dissuade me, that may be the one I must own.
Now, on other matters, I have our London dates in hand. Shall I send, in a separate comment, the dates and my e-mail address (my personal one, not the "blog" one), so we can communicate about specifics, as need be, by e-mail?
You can probably tell that Rosenkav is a special obsession of mine..it's just that the production in which our Anne shines is a bit flaccid - and of course she's offstage for an act and a half. But she does just make so much sense of the part, and the text. Don't get me started on audio recordings, of which I have the greater part of the total on the shelves...
As for meeting up, tell you what, I'l send a brief message to the Prufrock e so that you can reply with your own personal one. That saves you disclosing on here what you might want to keep to yourself.
Well, if you have to have an obsession, that's a pretty marvelous one, I'd say. I'm looking forward to revisiting this opera (which at one time I listened to repeatedly) again, and soon. (I have also responded to your e-mail missive, as you'll see.)
For me, 'that one can't buy one's happiness at the expense of others' just about sums just about everything up. I think Mr Wagner's Ring Cycle could be summarized just a succinctly. The next step is the big one - the why?
Thankfully, you seem in good form, and released back into the world with the Spring. May whatever comforts you need come your way.
Welcome, Wanderer, and thanks for your good wishes. I reckon the theme of the Ring can be summed up even more succinctly as power v love. Though maybe that doesn't account for the change of heart at the very end. The 'why' does intrigue me - what on earth moved those two to write on that subject? Strauss was hardly a superstud in the babymaking stakes...
Perhaps the author Emil Ludwig provided the best description of the theme of Wagner's operas - "In them there was no freedom or loyalty but only power, betrayal and sex"
Herr Ludwig was not entirely wrong, and that's certainly true of two and a half acts of Goetterdaemmerung - though the line between all-encompassing love and rampant sex is a tricky one to gauge.
My 'why' question was really directed at why one can't advance at another's expense (to which belief I fully subscribe) but let's save that for another time and place, fireside and comfortable chairs, that sort of thing.
Just touching briefly on power, sex, betrayal and the like, I think it better to dwell on the motive, not the act, and if I keep going with this I'll end up saying that you can't advance at another's expense, at which stage we'll put another log on.
As for Strauss, for me he excelled, musically I mean, and brilliantly, at 'what-love-isn't', Elektra a case in point.
Oh, I see. Sort of. What's so wonderful about Strauss is that having done what you call the 'what-love-isn't' in Salome - where the music almost makes the protagonist's address to the severed head a plausible love-paean - and Elektra, he went on to 'normalize' it so well in Rosenkavalier and, above all, his autobiographical marriage-opera Intermezzo. He thrived on extremes, it seems.
Tears have flowed down my face only twice in my grown-up life.....once when a friend just made a priest sang the Eucharistic Prayer at his first Mass, and later at the recognition scene in Electra with Susan Bullock
That's extraordinary, David, that you weep so rarely - my reaction as one who usually has to hold back racking loud sobs in Madama Butterfly and Jenufa. And, of course, Wagner: the first time I saw Meistersinger - again, coincidentally, with Norman Bailey, in Edinburgh - I wept through most of the third act, which is LONG.
The tear ducts, however, have dried up over the past few months. A hint of them returning will tell me I'm human again.
Glad to see you are back, David.
Comments about weeping at operas reminds me of seeing, with my mother, a film of Traviata with Anna Moffo in the title role. We had the daintiest of pocket hankies between us - a tiny square of fine lawn bordered with a wide band of lace - into which we snivelled and sobbed by turns. Eventually, my sense of the ridiculous overcame my tears. It has certainly helped me remember the film and Moffo's performance.
Yes David, Salome illustrates it perfectly - brilliantly orchestrated orgiastic self-gratifiction, the very opposite of love, hate actually, self-hatred to the point of death, literally and metaphysically, and sounding, as you say, almost like love. Often does, The great Rosenkavalier trio is for me Strauss at his most 'loving', nearing transcendence into true selflessness, but I don't think he even approximates Wagner's take on the true meaning on that love word. Erda gets some of the most loving music I know (along with Hans Sachs) because her music is infused with the sounds of wisdom, and love is wise.
As for crying, I'm the blubberer you wish you didn't sit next to. Salome can do it, easily, and Elektra breaks me up just with the four opening cords let alone the recognition scene. But Erda, the Norns, and Siegfried singing to his mother (the Woodbird as I believe the latter to be) and .. Wagner is on another (cosmic) level. Elgar was good in Gerontius, that shock and recoil at the revelation is right on I think (and credit to Newman).
Again, good wishes for healing, and tears, gently.
Catriona - good to hear from you. Traviata was the very first opera I went to see, and my teenage self did shed a few tears at the end, though it probably wasn't great (Lois McDonall at English National Opera). As far as consumptives go, Mimi tends to do it more for me these days because I find the reactions of the friends gathered around so moving and true.
Wanderer - yes, Elgar does it for me in Gerontius, especially with Part Two's opening and of course the Angel's Farewell in the right hands. The slow movement of the First Symphony is probably my high watermark of enraptured tearfulness, though.
I remember the day the screen in the Covent Garden Plaza went dead just as Violetta was singing her last aria
Some intelligent guy came out and apologised over the microphone - giving also the remaining plot. Just as the aria was ending a helicopter arrives outside the house and takes Violetta to a mountain hospital in Switzerland, where she achieves a full recovery
Of course Stalin did this to Swan Lake. I saw the opera in that form in Moscow and was quite mystified until it was explained to me.
Communism always produces a happy ending
I believe the 'happy' ending of Swan Lake was an idea for the new Petipa/Ivanov choreography mounted just after Tchaikovsky's death, and perpetuated in the Sergeyev Soviet-era version (which follows the 1893 example's ghastly cuts and interpolations). Curiously enough the happy end of the original Romeo and Juliet in 1935 was the idea of Prokofiev and his scenarist Radlov; official pressure made them change it back to the Shakespearean original.
MOST interesting to learn that the "happy" ending was before the Soviets though maintained by them. I attended maybe three performances of Swan Lake at the Bolshoi during my time of frequent visits to Moscow and on one occasion I was told it was special as it was the second team. Well, it was magnificent so " second" obviously meant nearly the tops. The Corp de ballet especially stays in the memory. Also we had the box supposedly used in Soviet times by the Politburo - one could walk out at any time without disturbing anyone and there were just outside tables with caviar and champanski etc and elegant young men in white coats eager to serve. I could see how one could easily begin to feel at home, being on the inside track, as I believe happened to quite a few foreign correspondents in the communist period.
I think I liked the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky better 'in between' the old and new orders - can't speak for the Bolshoi, but the Mariinsky audience is now very Euroblingy, whereas before (ie in the early 90s when I knew it best) it had lots of ordinary Russians, often with their children.
So here I come home from my evening event to catch up on your new post to find this huge opera conversation going on over here! I just can't help smiling, because here I am a little opera newbie, just having finally got up the gumption to hear my first Götterdämmerung (in HD, and wanderer will tell you the one I saw was "in the wrong hands"). I can only say that hearing it (that music! that alone!) is what led to the opera immersion therapy I'm about to undergo, for I've decided it's about time I heard my first ever Ring cycle. Long story short, this meant also buying a full subscription, so for the 2012-2013 season, I have 11 operas in store. God knows . . .
I wonder if the explanation of the changes in audience can be explained as follows. Under communism tickets were very cheap ("Everyone should be able to attend the people's ballet and opera") But of course it was not easy to get tickets without party (etc) connections. Then communism fell and possibly the cheap tickets continued - for a time. Then the new free market system clicked in and the tickets went to the market price as in the West. Hence there may have been a window when families could afford to go
Sue - you'll probably be a convert for life. I wonder which Twilight would raise the ire of Wanderer?
David - spot on, that was exactly the situation.
The Met's, this season (from half-way around the world, he and I seem to have seen the same HD--but perhaps he'll tell us more).
True, I wasn't especially fond of the Met Twilight but if it has captured one, one Susan what's more, into the opera firmament, then that's good enough. My finger pointing was at the production values, earth bound that they were/are and a pretty routine reading of the score. It was little more than a concert performance, walk on walk off, with not a hint of the rape and pillage by the males of the species, the degradation of the female and the wise, the self destruction of 'advancing at another's expense'. I thought it all more cartoon than metaphor and deeply superficial (sic). And the fabulous resources of the enormous Met stage was swapped for a movable flat screen of dubious merit.
There's an interview with Jonas K which I can't track down just now in which he decries producers who don't trust the music, or worse don't even understand the music. Robert Lepage comes to mind pretty quickly.
And Zachary Woolfe's recent comments are here.
Have now viewed the "Solti with Kiri." The Edu-Mate even deigned to join in for Act III (she knows where the "best bits" are . . .). So now I have to ask, opera greenhorn though I be, can there possibly a two-note phrase in all of music with more poignancy than Strauss's "Ja, ja," as delivered by Te Kanawa? (We were also, BTW, quite taken with Anne Howells as Octavian, though I gather that may be a minority taste.)
For new insights into an opera one needs new conductors, new singers. Does one really need ( except occasionally) new productions? And certainly one does not need productions which do not reflect the music ( and indeed the words ). Does one need bodies being thrown into lime pits in the ruins of Dresden in the last act of Idomeneo; or the Soldiers Chorus in Faust showing the soldiers lame or missing ( just listen to the music)? The best comment I heard was that nowadays there is always a lavatory on the stage, except in Lulu, when there are two.[ Note for those not familiar with pseudo-upper-class English usage, a loo (or lou) is a lavatory)
David: What a wonderful discussion you have spawned here! I am getting my opera education--now with wanderer and Damant chiming in again as well. With as little experience as I have, I am already struck by problematic productions. I remember Julie Taymor's the Magic Flute, that poor Queen of the Night with her glorious voice, trapped in a ridiculous costume. As for the Ring, while I know I'm going to enjoy it, I don't like to see these wonderful singers endangered by insane sets. While Lepage clearly has been instructed to tone it down, he appears to be unrepentant, and, what's more, arrogant and appalling. If the Met wishes to rehabilitate this production in print, Lepage is not the best spokesperson (to put it mildly). Witness this: here
I remember what James Carville (a Clinton campaign manager) said about the economy, which I shall paraphrase here: "It's the music, stupid."
To which I add (well, sing, in Te Kanawa's voice, in my head), "Ja, ja."
I remember a production of the Magic Flute in London where the staging was gimmicky and the dialogue roughly handled: and then a review said - after reporting all that - "However, the music was unaffected". As though it might have been affected !! How long before we have that also ?
I wonder if this concentration on productions is due to the fact that nowadays we can hear the greatest singers in the most wonderful sound at home. So in the minds of some, it is the production which is central to actual attendance.
If I were in charge of a great charity I would give to an opera house only if they engraved "It's the music, stupid" just by the sur titles
Heck, I won't be drawn into the reactionary why-bother-with-a-staging points except to say that some new productions convince (ie Jones), others don't (ie Bieito), to me at any rate, according to the degrees to which the directors have listened to the music and come up with their own vision of that.
Schlesinger's Covent Garden Rosenkav, to which Sue refers, though now past its prime, was an exemplary case of just about everything Hofmannsthal put into his elaborate libretto being realised on stage. And yes, Sue, I love that 'ja, ja' - such a gracious reply to an unintentionally cruel dagger in the heart (Faninal's 'that's what young people are like'). I think she does the end of Act One beautifully, too - do we see a real tear?
I would like to apologise for over-emphasising the question of staging. Of course an opera is a gesamtkunst. I suppose I over-react as a result of the gimmicky ones.
No need to apologise - it is I who should apologise to you for what looked in retrospect like an ill-tempered response. I know exactly what you mean, and I take your point that a perfect fusion of words, action and music is what all productions should aspire to. That the higher percentage don't succeed shouldn't stop folk from trying.
Maybe the role of director IS overstated. It is, however, with him or her that the ultimate success of the performance lies. This Loy FrOSch is a good case in point, and as I wrote, I can't make my mind up about it.
It's a bit of an old chestnut isn't it, the import of each of the three (music, voice, stage) but David D's comment about a new conductor resonates with me. Down here it's interesting to see how they market operas - nearly always by production values (on-the-harbour Traviata with chandelier, Boheme in Berlin), less often the singers, and never the conductor. There's arguably many reasons for this; another time.
But, Barenboim is conducting the Ring at La Scala next year and while I can't tell you the name of any of the cast (though I did look), nor the producer, I have to tell you - my tickets in my hot hand already. I'm completely open about everything, including Barenboim, but I just have to hear him.
Well, in a few instances, a big-name conductor can still sell an opera. I suspect Maw's opera Sophie's Choice sold out at Covent Garden partly because of the low-price seats but mainly because Rattle was conducting. Barenboim, too, sells no matter what (personally I think he's a great man, and second to none as pianist in Mozart, but owing to a certain lack of flexibility not on my list of the top ten conductors). Anyway, you should have a marvellous time in Milan.
As regards the conductor as a conductor, rather than as a seller of seats........ I cannot ( sorry !) rank Brahms at the top, but when I heard the late Gunter Wand conducting the First Symphony at the Edinburgh Festival some years ago I had to admit it was very impressive, having not thought so many times before. Sometimes turning on a broadcast, not knowing who is conducting, one suddenly thinks "Wow !" - whether very good or very bad.
I promise I will not blunder in with any more Carville-based quotes, but I just have to say, I keep saving this entire post and set of comments for future reference, only to come back and find, as, David N., you once noted on a post Over There: "This carries on being so rich." Indeed it does!
One more example springs to mind of where a conductor was perceived to have saved the day when a production was truly dire. I wasn't up to going, but I saw that all praise in the recent Royal Opera Rusalka was for Yannick Nezet-Seguin. The staging did sound fathomlessly bad and at odds with that tender/lacerating score.
Oh yes, Yannick Nezet-Seguin is a perfect example. He has visited here twice for the Sydney Symphony (leaving many dreaming of the unlikely possibility of successor to Ashkenazy) and in an exception making the rule, the main marketing programme subtitle thingy for the second visit was "He's Back".
Rattle is another and while I'm trip dropping (travel not acid) I did manage to get to Aix for the Ring and Sir Simon (and that orchestra), not that Provence every year for four years is exactly purgatory, a bit like Milan really.
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