MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Reflections on Shadow

Anne Schwanewilms as the Empress, Torsten Kerl as the Emperor, and Scott Weber as the Falcon; photo by Ken Howard

Anne Schwanewilms as the Empress, Torsten Kerl as the Emperor, and Scott Weber as the Falcon; photo by Ken Howard

I’m still ruminating on the recent peak experience I had at the Metropolitan Opera: this season’s revival of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, directed by the late Herbert Wernicke (which I had missed when it was unveiled in 2001).

The world of Strauss and Hofmannsthal has long felt very familiar to me, but there’s no question that Frau emits a strangeness that veer perilously toward the overly precious or the downright obscure if all its elements aren’t carefully balanced.

But when they are – as they were for this overall superb production – the rewards defy comparison with just about any other opera experience I can summon. Frau doesn’t merely reaffirm the excellence of opera as an art form: it suggests an entirely new dimension of operatic possibility rarely hinted at even by many acknowledged masterpieces.

Christine Goerke as the Dyer’s Wife; photo by Ken Howard

Christine Goerke as the Dyer’s Wife; photo by Ken Howard

Not everything is perfect in the Met’s production, not all the questions this phantasmagoria of Hofmannsthal and Strauss leaves you wrestling with get answered, or even clarified as questions (are they even meant to?). Some of these are mundane, some of key relevance to the opera’s meaning: Why do we occasionally see the Empress’s shadow (or were those reflections?)? Why are Barak and Keikobad the only characters with names? Why does Keikobad relent in a Sarastro-like reversal of the way he’s been introduced to us? What really drives the Nurse? And on and on….

Here’s a little collage from some of the more interesting reviews of the recent revival:

John Yohalem:

Herbert Wernicke’s 2001 production, now revived and revised, is a fine, gaudy bit of stagework. The walls of mirror for the magical realm, enhanced by projections, doubles, torches and the Met’s underappreciated stage elevator (absolutely silent as the four- or five-story set slithers back and forth, in and out, up and down!) make a dandy backdrop for multidimensional show, and the mirrors conceal inopportune shadows until the story is ready to receive them. The seamless flow of stage-high trickery in Act III should tickle any theatrical fancy.

Ildikó Komlósi as the Nurse; photo by Marty Sohl

Ildikó Komlósi as the Nurse; photo by Marty Sohl

Micaela Baranello

Wernicke’s Met production is a great success, and actually lives up to the music’s energy and atmosphere…The design—all by Wernicke—is the primary attraction. The world of the Empress, Emperor, and Nurse is a mirrored box, whose transformations are seen in various dramatic flickering lighting effects. In contrast to this glamour, the Dyer’s house is in a gritty sewer or subway, located below the box and connected by a fire escape staircase…The upper level is timeless and mythic, the lower contemporary and realistic…

The upper level is timeless and mythic, the lower contemporary and realistic (Act 1 ends with the dyer Barak poignantly staring into an open refrigerator). The implication is vaguely Marxist: the Empress (surrounded by narcissistic mirrors) is exploiting the literal underclass, for whom she gradually learns compassion. The finale is Brechtian–or lieto fine-ian—with the lighting scaffold descending to reveal the stage mechanism and the singers addressing the audience directly. Since the music does not follow suit in any way, I found this gesture a little ineffective, but overall this is a very strong and convincing production.

James Jorden:

[Frau] represents the Met at its peak: Every element melds into an overwhelming artistic experience. It’s how you dream opera ought to be. The Woman without a Shadow even feels like a dream or rather a nightmare one might have dozing off while cramming for a final exam on Advanced Jungian Analysis….

In an interview published at the time of the production’s premiere, [Wernicke] declared, “The shiny, mysterious realm of spirits and the poor, low-class world of the Dyer, Barak—that’s just like New York’s lofty Central Park West apartments, in their harsh contrast to the underworld of poor people and outcasts and the subways, where the homeless fight over leftovers with the rats.”

 Christine Goerke as the Dyer's wife) and Johan Reuter as Barak; photo by Ken Howard

Christine Goerke as the Dyer’s wife) and Johan Reuter as Barak; photo by Ken Howard

Eric Simpson:

In Wernicke’s concept, the Emperor and Empress rule over an ethereal plane represented on the stage by a mirrored tunnel. It is remarkable how much is accomplished here using only scrims and lighting (it’s hard to remember a time when computer projections weren’t the industry standard). In the mirror-world, the various characters have strongly evocative auras that light up the set. The stunning pink-and-blue diffusion that accompanied the Empress’s first entrance gave the audience a sense of what life might be like on the inside of a jellyfish.

When the time comes to journey into the mortal realm, the entire set rises up to reveal a dreary warehouse that serves as the dyer Barak’s home and workplace. The contrast between the two settings is striking—where the upper plane is blindingly radiant but physically spare, the dyer’s workshop is fully and realistically furnished but lit only by overhead factory lights.

Martin Bernheimer:

It began – and ended – in 2001. Herbert Wernicke startled the basically conservative Met with an astonishingly progressive production of Richard Strauss’s magnificently bloated Die Frau ohne Schatten. He actually made theatrical sense of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s high-minded, hopelessly convoluted libretto.

Serving as his own designer and lighting magician, Wernicke played the spiritual scenes in a surreal hall of mirrors. For the mundane episodes, he created a contemporary milieu resembling an industrial warehouse. For the ultimate resolution, he introduced neo-Brechtian imagery. He dealt in revelations at all levels.

I tracked down a full program (in German only) from Robert Carsen’s production for the Wiener Staatsoper, which is brimming with information and fascinating essays.

Meanwhile, Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Frau for Bayerische Staatsoper will be streamed live this coming Sunday (December 1), starting at 6 pm CET. Be careful: this is heavily addictive stuff.

Filed under: Metropolitan Opera, opera, Strauss

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