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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

DVD Review: The Shadow Resounds

Die Frau ohne Schatten  (Salzburg, 2011, OpusArte)
Vienna Philharmonic cond. Christian Thielemann
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Consider that a divorce? The Dyer's Wife (Evelyn Herlitzius) confronts Barak (Wolfgang Koch)
in Act II of Die Frau ohne Schatten from the 2011 Salzburg Festival.
Photo from the Salzburg Festival ©2011 OpusArte.
The historic early days of the recording era are at the center of Christof Loy's stripped-down Salzburg production of Die Frau Ohne Schatten, the longest and most challenging of Richard Strauss' fifteen operas. Mr. Loy moves the action of this fairy-tale opera to a Vienna recording studio, a replica of the Sofiensaal ballroom which served as a crucible for the modern industry of recording classical music and opera.

This production is implied to be taking place during the first recording of Frau, made in 1955. The cast start the opera as the recording artists making the opera, wearing street clothes (overcoats, sweaters and '50s period fashion) on a cold December night. Working on a wide "scaffold" stage (marked off with masking tape) they position themselves at music stands and sing directly from battered copies of the score.

As the second act begins, the singers embody Hofmannsthal's characters, reverting to "normality" when they step off the sound-stage. Omipresent: the recording booth with its red light, engineers, and the presence of a young stage director (could it be Christopher Raeburn?) moving each singer into his or her proper spot under the microphones.

This Spartan setting forces attention on the voices. For the most part, they're pretty good. Stephen Gould takes on the sky-high notes of the Emperor with a gutsy assault on the Act I "Amme, wachst du?" He displays a Siegfried-like lack of fear in this difficult opening aria, tossing off the high notes with very little effort. He is more deliberate in the Act II "Falke, mein falke" showing a vibrato when the voice is under pressure, Halfway through the number, he sets aside the score and becomes frenzied--the magic of the opera is starting to work.

Ex-mezzo Anne Schwanelims is a compelling Empress, with a potent instrument that has freshness and an intensity that mounts with the action. Caught between the mortal and fairy worlds in her quest to earn the titular Shadow, Ms. Schwanelims gives the Empress the quality of an animal trapped in headlights. Slowly, she understands and finally gains her humanity. The climax of Act III  is sung on the sound-stage alone and features an extraordinarily versatile performance as Ms. Schwanelims meets Strauss' considerable demands.

As the Dyer's Wife, Evelyn Herlitzius uses her potent soprano to carve a well-rounded, convincing figure, a sort of proto-feminist drawn into events she cannot control. She is a wounded bird, trapped in a failing relationship with the character played by Wolfgang Koch--the opera singer playing her husband Barak.  In their long Act I duet (ending with one of Strauss' prettiest orchestral interludes) Mr. Koch and Ms. Herlitzius embody a divorced couple forced to work together in the recording studio--much like their real life counterparts Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry.

Ms. Herlitzius' tirades dominate Act II, coming to a mighty climax in her confrontation with Barak that brings down the curtain. Even better is mezzo Michaela Schuster in the opera's most demanding role: the Nurse. Ms. Schuster's laser-like instrument and sarcastic stage persona bring a caustic, cynical edge to this complex figure. Both singers become more unhinged as the drama unfolds.

One of main values of this set is the preservation of Christian Thielemann's superb performance in the orchestral pit, as he exhorts the Vienna Philharmonic to new heights over three acts. (The German conductor insists on performing this score without cuts.) Orchestral accompaniment is expertly balanced, never overpowering the singers or sacrificing the glittering details of Strauss' score. At the end of the Act I Watchmen's chorus, the camera captures a rare smile from Mr. Thielemann--his genuine pleasure at their high level of performance is a beautiful thing to see.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.