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Friday, August 5, 2011

Opera Review: Return to the Sofiensaal

Die Frau ohne Schatten at the 2011 Salzburg Festival
by Paul J. Pelkonen
(Ed. Note: the following is based on watching about an hour's worth of clips from the performance, published this week on YouTube by OperaZine. They were called to my attention by my good friend La Cieca at Parterre Box. No, I didn't suddenly fly to Salzburg. But this is so worth writing about.)
The Nurse (Michaela Schuster) works on Barak (Wolfgang Koch) in the 2011 Salzburg production
of Richard Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten. Photo by Monika Rittershaus © 2011 Salzburger Festpiele.
This utterly fascinating new production of Richard Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten succeeds through simplicity. By eliminating all the visual difficulties that go with this most complex opera,the Salzburg creative team has stripped Frau to its brilliant core: the music. Director Christof Loy takes opera-goers back to the Sofiensaal, a disused, unheated ballroom in post-war Vienna. The period: that magical era of 1958-1965, when a team of enterprising British engineers created the first stereo recordings of Wagner's Ring Cycle, Strauss' Salome and Elektra, and Verdi's Aida.

Dressed in winter coats and appropriate, period clothing, the singers perform at score desks, carrying battered, well-marked copies of the vocal score of Frau. In between, they sit at rehearsal desks, sip tea and shiver. If Mr. Loy is trying to capture the tedious truth of being stuck in a recording session, he achieved that. A singer then moves to one of the music stands, positions around a carefully marked-off grid on an elevated platform in the middle of the ballroom.

The process depicted here (which eventually became branded and promoted as "Decca Sonicstage") was the brain-child of producer John Culshaw. His positioning system (aallowed the sound of the singers to be panned back and forth across the sonic palette, giving the listener the illusion that the singers were standing to the right or the left, communicating and interacting as if they were on a "real" operatic stage.

As they perform/record the roles in the opera, the singers are accompanied by a score-wielding assistant engineer, and monitored from a "control booth" high in the ballroom set. Much of the action involves the assistant engineer positioning singers on the stage, a team of maids providing the artists with coffee, and the re-blocking of music stands for the scene changes.

The first clip featured the duet of the Empress and the Nurse in Act I, and the pell-mell journey down to the world of Men which marks the opera's first major scene-change. Anne Schwanewilms has the right silvery voice for the Empress, with steel underneath for cutting through Strauss' thick orchestration. Michaela Schuster is a complex presence as the Nurse, being pulled deeper and deeper into the slippery role as the opera develops.

The excerpt from Act II features a pair of well-dressed, confused looking "backers" and a line of dancing girls who may be rehearsing another performance altogether. (They take the place of the illusory servants that the Nurse conjures for the Dyer's Wife in Act I and II.) It's a backstage look at opera being created, at a recording process that no longer exists, in a building that is no longer used.

Evelyn Herlitzius is all raw power and emotion as the Dyer's Wife, whose Faustian bargain with the Nurse is at the heart of the opera's plot. Baritone Wolfgang Koch is all depression and defeat as Barak. Finally, there is too little of tenor Stephen Gould as the Emperor included in these excerpts, but he sounds firm and noble in the finale. The choral singing (what I could hear of it) was top-flight.)

It is no disservice to this strong cast of singers to say that the brightest star of this performance is the Vienna Philharmonic, playing this marvelous music as few orchestras can, under the expert and enthusiastic guidance of Christian Thielemann. Mr. Thielemann shows his experience with this complicated music, and his pride of place as the conductor best qualified to tame Strauss' beast of a score. The orchestra seems inspired by the production setting, a hearkening back to the glory years of its Decca contract.

At the finale, the cast reappears in evening clothes, surrounded by the Vienna Boys' Choir for the choral finale. The Sofiensaal is adorned with Austrian state banners and a giant holiday tree. Their audience: you, as if they were giving a recital that night following a long day's recording session. Also the intimacy between the characters has been restored as it should be at the conclusion of this long opera about resolving marital difficulties. The finale becomes a gift from the Vienna Philharmonic to the city that they call home. It is a perfect way to end the opera.

Watch the opening of Act III of Die Frau ohne Schatten from Salzburg.

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