Today, I attended a Lyric Opera performance of Richard Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten, led by famed soprano Deborah Voigt as the Empress. The evening was a stunning four hours in length, and cramming that in after a full day's work can be quite a challenge, especially when you're dealing with this opera in this current production. This is the third Strauss opera I have seen at the Lyric in recent years and as one can guess, I really like Strauss operas. The only operas I like more are by Mozart, and the similarities between the two operatic composers are clear. In fact, this fairy tale is based on ideas from, you guessed it, Die Zauberflote. But that is where the connection ends. The rest of the influence comes from Richard Wagner - a 100+ orchestra crammed into the pit, and gargantuan voices from gargantuan women to sing over that huge orchestra. After viewing this opera, I can emphatically state that this opera is not one of my favorites by Strauss. I like Ariadne and Rosenkavalier, and I can even make room for Salome. But this opera is just too strange and bombastic for my tastes. There were moments when I thought I was watching experimental theater or the final scenes from Phantom of the Opera. Yes, it was that over the top. The vision of the Stage Director, Paul Curran, didn't make it any easier on me either. In fact, I think it is what spoiled the opera for me.
The story of the opera leaves much to be desired. It is one of those "simplistic" stories that is supposed to portend to greater meaning. That may be true, but the ultimate point doesn't require four hours. But story aside, the staging was the most difficult aspect for me. The opera requires three different worlds - one of the gods (more specifically, their underworld), one where they mix, a sort of holding cell for a wayward goddess, and the mortal sphere where humans go about their business. All three sets were disappointing.
The opera opens in the second world described, the home of the Goddess Empress and her human husband the Emperor. They live separately from the rest of the world, and the impression I got from the set is one of darkness and isolation. It was like a jail cell, with the staging even going so far as to have a big eye in one of the back "windows" to signify the ever-watchful eye of the Empress's father, Keikobad. The lighting was either very dark or harsh spot lights, both designed to minimize shadows. That works, until a woman who is supposed to be a falcon floats down from the rafters in a square of fluorescent tubing. I think it's supposed to represent a branch. Later on they will bring down many tubes in the Act 2 scene requiring a forest. Continuing with the insult in that forest scene, the Emperor glides down indecorously from the rafters on a fiberglass horse and plops down on stage to sing his monologue. He then clumsily gets back on the horse at the end and floats away. I imagine such ploys are to show the Emperor's traversal of the fluorescent tube forest, but I would have accepted him moving across the stage.
Another problem was the set of the humans, where most of the opera took place. It was a drab and uninteresting set to have to look at for hours. It was so oddly shaped that the singers seemed to spend more energy trying to make their way around the set than act out their parts. Franz Hawlata, who played the lowly human Barak, tripped at one point but acted like it was all part of the plan. What makes things worse is that the three divas are all heavyweights of varying degrees. That made the set even more precarious for them, with their long dresses and dainty feet.
There were even dancers in this opera to provide connection between scenes and to add interest. Most of the dancing seemed commonplace and more of a distraction than an addition. That is how I would describe everything about this production - distractions without adding anything. At one point, one of the characters, the Nurse, tries to wrest the shadow away from the aforementioned Barak's wife by enticing her with a hot man. One of the muscular dancers was painted gold, asked to stand on a hydraulic lift in a speedo, and endlessly go up and down as the Wife agrees and then doesn't. The audience laughed on many occasions rest assured.
All that mess aside, you are left with the unbelievable music of Richard Strauss. He brings out every timbral combination during the course of the opera. One of the most intriguing is the prelude to Act Three for solo bassoon, then two bassoons before the curtain goes up. There is no comic effect in that bassoon solo. Celesta, xylophone, two harps, every woodwind possible, solos for violin and cello, all have their chance. It is a definite Wagner-scaled score, but with all the characteristic Strauss touches that I love so much. The singing was wonderful. Jill Grove who played the Nurse has such a beautifully rich lower range. Act Two belonged to Christine Brewer who played the Dyer's Wife. Unfortunately, she plays an unhappy woman who is not given many enticing melodies. It is in Act Three where Brewer is allowed to really show what she can do, and she does it with ease and beautiful tone, especially in the extreme registers, high and low. Deborah Voigt's character is a watcher for the vast middle of the opera. But, Voigt is a consumate actress and a wonderful singer. She sang with conviction and passion. You could tell this is one of her signature roles. The three women were perfect for Strauss. In fact, Brewer will be performing the very same role right after her Lyric tenure for the Opera National de Paris.
So how to sum up? Strauss's music is amazing but wasted on a ridiculous story of self-sacrifice, loyalty and family. The singing was wonderful but coupled with a rotten production (at one point they had a woman sitting in a fiber glass hand that was supposed to represent an infernal river), I can say that this performance didn't work for me at all. If I want to see a fairytale, I think I'll stick with Mozart.