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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

DVD Review: Coming Down to Earth

Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Opera take on Die Frau Ohne Schatten.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Lost in the darkness: Mlada Khudoley (left) and Avgust Amonov as the Empress and Emperor
in Richard Strauss' Die Frau Ohne Schatten.
Photo © 2011 Mariinsky Opera.
Die Frau Ohne Schatten is composer Richard Strauss' most ambitious collaboration with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. A Magic Flute-style quest (in this case for the missing "shadow" of the title) written on a Wagnerian scale, Frau has a complex libretto that requires its director to make frequent transitions between the everyday world and the realm of faerie, ruled by the merciless Keikobad. The titular Frau is  Keikobad's daughter, the Empress. She seeks to cast a shadow and bring fertility to her loveless marriage. With five leading roles and a heavyweight orchestration, it is a formidable challenge for any opera house.

In 2009, that challenge was accepted by Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Opera, in a production by the British team of director Jonathan Kent and designer Paul Brown. (This performance was filmed in December of 2011.) This is Strauss' knottiest score, with interweaving leitmotifs and a constant shift in orchestral color as the story moves from Keikobad's realm to Earth and back. In addition to the demanding vocal lines, the underpinning string and wind figurations must be closely controlled and guarded. However, all this necessary detail seems to flummox Mr. Gergiev, whose go-for-broke podium style (complete with fluttering fingers and toothpick-sized baton) is ill-suited to this opera.

The Mariinsky Orchestra has worked with Mr. Gergiev for years, and can generally interpret his wishes. That's what you hear for the most part, but the most contrapuntal (and interesting) passages of the score (the Act I Erdenflug intermezzo, the apparitions and the dream sequence in Act II) seem rushed and even blurred. Other scenes like the Watchmen's Chorus (shown here as a TV broadcast within the opera(!)) are taken too slowly. Additionally, the huge orchestra is simply too loud for some of the singers, a problem that could have been solved at the mixing desk.

As the Empress, soprano Mlada Khudoley has a high, bright register with a lack of tenderness. She is initially an unsympathetic protagonist, a crucial problem given that she is the questing figure of the opera's title. In her opening address to the Red Falcon (Tatiana Kravtsova) Ms. Khudoley sounds like she would be better suited to  that smaller part. (Maybe they should have switched.) She improves in the second act's all-important dream sequence, but undermines her effort with a shrill, strained-for top note. Like the character, she finds redemption in the finale, particularly in her final long scene with the Nurse and the nerve-racking clomax.

Tenor Avgust Amonov is outmatched in Act I. He bawls through his opening aria. He positively yelps the climactic high note at the end of it, making for a less than heroic figure. He's accomapnied by a gang of spear-wielding Mariinsky dancers that lend more character to his appearances and some much needed movement on the stage. He is better in the soft passages of the long Act II address to his Falcon, adding baritonal color and depth to his character. He sounds even better in the third act. Maybe petrification was good for his vocal chords.

As the Nurse, Olga Savova is fascinating, a nightmarish and very human figure even though she herself is playing a supernatural force. She has a lot to overcome including a Russian peasant blouse with huge shoulder pads that looks like a hockey sweater. She and Ms. Khudoley struggle to be heard over the huge crescendo that builds to the Erdenflug, not helped by an eager brass section. The audience is whisked through this orchestral passage to their arrival at Barak's house.

Once on Earth, Strauss's slightly thinner textures prove a godsend to all of the singers. Barak's humble hut is here a working 20th century laundromat, complete with bottled detergents, mop and a very put-upon Wife (Olga Sergeyava). He is sung by Edem Umarov, whose plummy and occasionally unsteady baritone is suited to a man navigating a domestic crisis. He comes and goes in a beaten-up Range Rover, stuffed to bursting with bags of cloth. The orchestra has its first real moment of lyricism in his long silent pantomime with his Wife, as they fold dyed cloth and he picks up a bundle, cradling it  of his imagined future children.

This brings us to Ms. Sergeyava, whose performance as the Dyer's Wife proves the saving grace of this show. She is simply searing in the part, singing the notes and not screaming them, utterly fearless when soaring over Strauss' massive orchestrations. She is as Hofmannsthal wrote her, a complex and self-tormented portrait of womanhood with the voice of a Brunnhilde. She emerges as the dramatic center of the second act, reaching for ringing notes in her address to her enraged husband and ultimately saving both her marriage and herself.

Yevgeny Ulanov is a stentorian Messenger, stern of tone. The Three Brothers (Andrei Popov, Andrei Spekhov, Nikolai Kamensky) grapple with their German but act their parts well. The (mostly offstage) Mariinsky Chorus are well-trained and taut, adding beauty  to the complcated final quartet. In this sequence, Mr. Kent sets the action against all the locations visited before, suggesting that the multiple worlds of this opera are in fact one and the same place, before ending the long coda with the image of couples seeking children of their very own. It is a surprising and effective twist.

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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.