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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

DVD Review: Out of the Shadows

Die Frau ohne Schatten from Nagoya, Japan
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Screen-grab of Luana DeVol as the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten,
Image © 1992 Bavarian State Opera/ArtHaus Musik
Richard Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten is his grandest work, a three-act fairy tale on an enormous scale. The piece requires seven stellar singers, a giant orchestra, and a panoply of visual effects to depict events on three different planes of existence as the story follows the marital troubles of two couples in their struggle to conceive children. This stunning production was filmed in Nagoya, Japan in 1992, was scheduled for broadcast on Japanese television, but objections from that country's censors led to the broadcast never being aired.

The mythology of this opera was created by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Strauss' frequent librettist. An Emperor and an Empress, married for a year, have no children. She is the daughter of the fairy-king Keikobad. The Empress learns that she has three days to gain a shadow, (a symbol of her fertility) or her husband will be turned to stone. Aided by her Nurse, the Empress travels to the human world to buy a shadow, and encounters another troubled couple: the dyer Barak and his wife. After a series of trials, both couples are rewarded with the promise of long happiness and children to come.

Japanese director Ennosuke Ishikawa mounts the opera with elements of Noh plays and elaborate costuming to create the three worlds of the opera: the fairy realm, the royal palace of the Emperor and Empress, and the humble hovel of the Baraks. Tomio Morhi's costumes are impressive, from the simple homespun for the dyer and his wife to the full, elaborate kabuki costume (complete with multi-tiered crown) worn by Peter Seiffert as the Emperor. The sets are minimal and effective, using the "zones" of Noh theater to make the most complex moments in the opera clear and easily understood.
The final scene of the opera, with the two pairs of lovers reunited.
Image © 1992 Bavarian State Opera/ArtHaus Musik
It is a credit to soprano Luana DeVol that she makes an engaging, human character of the somewhat abstract Empress--and that she communicates effectively through the heavy, white makeup. From her fluttering, flighty entrance, she walks a complicated path. This is a tough role, made more difficult in that the Empress is mostly mute in the second act. At the climax (in a temple before the rapidly petrifying body of her husband) displaying power and resolve in that spoken monologue, which earns her the shadow and reunites the four couples for an ensemble climaxing in a glorious unision high C.

Janis Martin sings with great power and precision in the equally difficult role of the Dyer's Wife, a character, like many Strauss heroines, based on the composer's famously difficult wife Pauline. But it is mezzo-soprano Marjana Lipovsek who is simply stunning as the Nurse, the ambivalent "helper" who becomes the opera's antagnist as the plot develops. Her final scene in the third act, with its thrilling high note at the end, is one of the most rewarding parts of this performance.

The men are not to be left out. Peter Seiffert's Emperor is caught here early in a fine career, displaying an agile heldentenor with youth and bloom. Alan Titus, an underrated baritone, is a wonderful Barak, with dark, rich tones and a feeling of heavy resignation at the status of his difficult marriage. Jan-Hendrik Rootering is a towering, imposing presence. The bass plays the Spirit Messenger in full samurai armor and with a rich, black-toned bass that simply resonates with authority.

These performances of Frau marked Wolfgang Sawallisch's last bow as director of the Bavarian State Opera. The maestro has perfect control over his sprawling forces, leading the most complicated and intricate passages in the score with a sure hand. The famously difficult last act, with its panoply of offstage choruses, ringing fanfares and duets sung by physically separated singers is a challenge for any conductor. Mr. Sawallisch is now retired, but these DVDs show why he was considered to be one of the greatest Strauss conductors in the world.

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