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Friday, November 8, 2013

Opera Review: The Deep, Dark Truthful Mirror

Die Frau ohne Schatten (finally) comes back to the Met.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Scenes from a marriage: The Empress (Anna Schwanewilms, right) fights to save the
Emperor (Torsten Kerl) from being turned to stone in Act III of Die Frau ohne Schatten.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
The stars are aligned.
The twelfth messenger has arrived.
The red falcon has come home.

In other words, the Metropolitan Opera finally revived Richard Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten last night. This handsome production by the late Herbert Wernicke has been absent from that company's stage for nine years, an almost unforgivable oversight by one of the few North American companies capable of mounting this difficult work.

This is one of Richard Strauss' longest and most demanding operas, a complex fairy-tale that moves between three different planes of existence to tell the story of two deeply unhappy couples and their quest for the mythical "shadow," a symbol of female fertility. It calls for a massive orchestra (here under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski) and places considerable demands on both its soloists and the production team staging the work.

Mr. Wernicke's imaginative solution to the staging problems of Frau makes maximal use of the resources of this opera house. There are essentially two sets. A huge mirrored cube/tunnel with a raked acting surface represents the spirit world and later the temple of the fairy king Keikobad. A complex industrial workshop (which rises onstage by stage elevator) is the humble home of the dyer Barak and his recalcitrant Wife. The production makes effective use of mirrors, light and blocking to create the many short alternating scenes that can give opera directors headaches. On Thursday night, stage director J. Knighten Smit kept the action flowing smoothly, helped by the skilled conducting of Mr. Jurowski and the playing of the superb Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
First among the singers last night was Christine Goerke. She met the considerable challenges of singing and acting the role of the Dyer's Wife with a full dramatic soprano that rang out with powerful, golden tone in climactic moments. Ms. Goerke was ideal for this downtrodden woman who becomes embroiled in the sale of her own shadow, melting from icy coldness to genuine remorse and love for her husband Barak (Johan Heuter) in the opera's final tableau.

The Empress was Anna Schwanewilms, an impressive artist making her house debut with this difficult, high-flying role. Ms. Schwanewilms met the challenge of the difficult ornamentation in her opening aria. She then charted the course towards her shadow (and her humanity) with a characterization that grew richer over the course of three acts, Her final monologue (a spoken passage delivered against the thundering orchestra) was heart-rending and intense--a great dramatic performance.

Barak was sung by the Danish baritone Johan Heuter, who brought warmth, compassion and a great deal of patience to what is essentially one of Strauss' musical self-portraits. Mr. Heuter was moving, especially in his final address to the Wife at the end of Act I (right before the Watchmens' Chorus) and in the celebratory scene where Barak invites all the neighborhood kids home for lunch--much to his wife's displeasure. He was ably supported by debut artist Nathan Stark, Daniel Sutin and Alan Glassman as the dyer's three misshapen brothers--their ensemble singing made this tumultuous scene a welcome moment of levity.

As the Emperor, Torsten Kerl faced two difficult arias and a punishing duet and quartet in the last act. This is a good Strauss voice--one that started out pinched but improved and bloomed as the singer had a chance to warm up. Like Bacchus in Ariadne this is an ungratefully written part that offers little shelter for the singer. The Nurse, a two-faced caregiver and sorceress whose magic powers mask her own hidden agenda, was played by Ildikó Komlósi. This singing actress was alternately compelling, hilarious and subtly inhuman in this most challenging of mezzo roles.

Jennifer Check's high soprano was well suited to the Falcon, although the part of the bird was acted by dancer Scott Weber. The red-hatted Messenger of Keikobad, who serves as the voice of the god-like (and offstage) fairy king was the stentorian Richard Paul Fink, growling out gravely pronouncements as needed. Confusingly, the Guardian of the Threshold was in an identical red hat and costume, although when countertenor Andrey Nemzer began to sing, the confusion quickly ended.
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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.