Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Staatsoper Berlin's vocally exquisite Die Frau ohne Schatten in a nightmarish psychological thriller

Opera, as an art form, rattles the senses to interpret freely. Indeed, it seemed that way for me in seeing Staatsoper Berlin's new production of Richard Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten  (The Woman without a Shadow) which had come via earlier seasons at La Scala and Covent Garden. I came to Berlin to see Götz Friedrich's final outing of Wagner's Ring at Deutsche Oper. Seeing Staatsoper Berlin's Die Frau ohne Schatten in between was akin to adding a diamond to my visit.

Camilla Nylund (Empress)
Sung in German with German surtitles, it could have been enough to lose me but familiarisation with the synopsis, advised beforehand, lent a good degree of background. In the theatre, however, it's an exercise requiring sustained curiosity and concentration. I gave up whether or not I was on the right track and just took a train of thought to my own conclusion. The rewards were abundant, not least of which included exquisite vocal work, a smashing orchestral landscape with Zubin Mehta at the helm and a visually seductive staging from director Claus Guth.

Strauss' long-time collaborating librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, created the story from sources that included Goethe's "The Conversation of German Emigrants", the Arabian Nights and Grimms' Fairy Tales. In a fantastical collision of spiritual and earth worlds, the onetime gazelle and now shadowless half human/half spirt Empress (Camilla Nylund) - symbolising her inability to bear children - must acquire a shadow. Failing, she will be reclaimed by her father, Keikobad, and her husband turned to stone, the Emperor (Burkhard Fritz), who captured her as a gazelle. The Empress' Nurse (Michaela Schuster) concocts a plan to steal the shadow of a mortal and for this they visit the home of Barak (Wolfgang Koch) and his Wife (Iréne Theorin), she who secretly doesn't want children. 

 Camilla Nylund (Empress), Michaela Schuster Nurse)
In the bright outcome of Hofmannsthal's story pointing at marital love being blessed by children, the two couples unite in praise of their Unborn Children. But Guth appears to distort the intrinsic dark magic profusely, emphasising the macabre  and allowing it to unfold like a nightmarish psychological thriller sung in a treacherous storm of vocal immensity with little note of the joyous ending. The match he makes to Strauss' turbulent score - a spectrum of sublimely lush orchestral layers from dreamy lyricism to tempestuous terror and ecclesiastical glory - is impressive. At curtain call, Maestro Mehta stood genuinely proud, and rightly so of his 100-plus musicians who took the stage after giving non-stop, pounding orchestral vividness.

The curtain rises to reveal a segmented circular-walled, timber-panelled bare bedchamber with the Empress lying comatose-like, attended by the winged Nurse, the winged Messenger of Keikobad dressed as a doctor (Roman Trekel) and the caped Emperor. A sense of loss prevails.

Camilla Nylund (Empress) and Burkhard Fritz (Emperor)
When, in the end, we see the Empress back in her rudimentary steel bed before getting up in her nightgown and gazing emptily through a frosted window, everything in between seems to suggest she had been committed to a sanitarium for the mentally ill, her life precipitously on the edge. 

In a deeply coercive performance as the Empress, Camilla Nyland attacks the role with sensational depth, anxious and writhing in moments of agonised migraine fits and wafting amongst visions of her gazelle-headed counterpart and spirit-world characters with the sense of being taunted by the hopelessness of ever having bearing offspring who she sees as faun-headed children happily dancing about her.

Set and costume designer Christian Schmidt's early 20th Century restrained modernist aesthetic, including a neatly rear-centred revolve that supplies the many scene changes, parallels the time the opera premiered in 1919 and includes Freudian references via Andi A. Müller's video projections, including a hand petting the gazelle's fur and schools of fish. Olaf Winter's lighting design shapes a marvellous, dark, evocative and complex beauty.

Nyland tears through the vocal writing in wondrous form, the agility, grace, beauty and alertness of the gazelle clearly replicated in her plush dramatic soprano. She is joined by two equally outstanding women in Michaela Schuster, who sang the role of the Nurse in both Milan and London, and Iréne Theorin as Barak's Wife.

Burkhard Fritz (Emperor)
Alluringly rich and acrobatic in vocal technique, indefatigable dramatic mezzo-soprano Schuster grips and plucks the air in sinister and selfish witch-like behaviour, winged in black as if mimicking the Empress's distrust in her dependency on her carer's expected guardian angel-like quality. To Barak's scolding and defiant Wife, Theorin gives expressive command and a rich forest of vocal shading. 

Burkhard Fritz's distinguished, capacious sounding Emperor and Wolfgang Koch's muscular-voiced, rustic and berated Barak sturdily complimented the power of the women alongside an entire cast that shone brilliantly, never faltering in staying above the volume from the pit. Roman Trekel's resonant, dark and dusky bass-baritone as the Messenger of Keikobad, tenor Jun-Sang Han's suave and sonorous woos as The Apparition of a Youth with Narine Yeghiyan's refined and mellifluous soprano accompanying her watchful and flapping Falcon all added dramatic depth. 

I was completely carried away by the quality, strength and splendour of the cast. The audience were clearly enraptured too in this production that will continue to etch its captivating and haunting stage pictures in time to come, in an interpretation in which I want to remember Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Staatsoper Berlin
Schiller Theater
Until 16th April 

Production photos: Hans Jörg Michel

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