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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Best Opera Productions I've Ever Seen: Die Frau ohne Schatten

Metropolitan Opera House, Nov. 18, 1989
by Paul J. Pelkonen
"Er wird zu stein!" James King as the Emperor in Act III of Die Frau ohne Schatten
Photo from the Met Archives, taken by Frank Dunand © 1978 Opera News/The Metropolitan Opera. 
This summer marks 30 years of opera for me. My first was Turandot at the New York City Opera, in the summer of 1982. And since then I've seen hundreds of operas.

Add to that the operas I've seen on home video and DVD and you have an enormous list. So in the interests of fun (and because I'm recovering from illness and missed yesterday's shows at Mostly Mozart) here's a new feature for Superconductor: a look at some of my favorite opera productions that I've seen in my three decades sitting in the dark.

These aren't necessarily reviews--more like reminiscence. Some of them I saw live, others, only on video. So please bear with--it's an attempt to loosen up the format of the blog and give myself something fresh to write about.

Die Frau ohne Schatten ("The Woman Without a Shadow") was the second opera I saw at the Metropolitan Opera House (my first was Aida with Plácido Domingo and Aprile Millo). It was the start of a long (and still ongoing) love affair with the operas of Richard Strauss.
I remember hearing a blast of orchestral sound, a quick curtain-lift. A swirl of color and silvery onion domes, and suddenly there was a man with giant silvery wings up over the stage (Franz Mazura) bellowing (what I later learned was) "Er wird zu stein!" ("He will be turned to stone.") There were no titles to tell me what was going on. And I frankly didn't care.

It was wonderful.

Then the Emperor (Robert Schunk) came out on stage and started to sing of his hunting excursions and of the loss of his red falcon. The Empress (Mechtild Gessendorf) sang a duet with that same bird (Heidi Grant Murphy) and that was followed by the Erdenflug, a swirling journey down to the mortal world that makes the similar descent in Das Rheingold pale in comparision. And remember, I hadn't yet seen The Ring.

The complexities of Hugo von Hoffmannsthal's libretto didn't quite communicate to me, but the story, with the difficulties of the Barak household and the high-flying soprano heroics of the two leading ladies communicated. So did the glorious music, which (if you've never heard it) sounds like Wagner strained through Mozart. This was my first "heavy" German opera and I was (quickly) addicted.

I remember sitting in my orchestra seat, watching the final scene with the petrified, pleading Mr. Schunk sitting in the dark, his eyes glowing like green gimlets. I remember the Empress' bravery and great sacrifice. (The phrase "Ich...will...nicht!" needed no translation.) The message of the finale, with its gorgeous flood of choral singing, came across all too clearly.

This was the last run for the Met's "classic" Die Frau, a production that can make old opera goers misty-eyed with nostalgia. Since then, the piece has since been mounted in a stellar new production (by Herbert Wernicke--I saw it in 2001) which I wish current management would have the courage to bring back. But I will never forget my first time seeing Strauss' most challenging opera.

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