Is there any other opera that inspires so much tolerance in the audience as Die Frau ohne Schatten? Everything is so impossibly difficult that one feels even grateful that singers, conductor, director, members of the orchestra et al have agreed to do this possibly for the same fee they would receive for, say, Carmen… In any case, the Bavarian State Opera can certainly boast to have a new production against which there could be little competition this day. Of course, there are shortcomings – even Karajan’s 1964 recording from the Vienna State Opera has shortcomings (nota bene - he had Fritz Wunderlich for the Erscheinung eines Jünglings and Lucia Popp for the Stimme des Falken) – but the level of success of individual contribution is so high that you feel inclined to overlook that the sum of the parts is noticeably less impressive.
I have seen Adrianne Pieczonka as Ariadne, Arabella and the Marschallin and found her Straussian performances so far only intermittently satisfying. Her Kaiserin this evening was in an entirely other level: golden tone, noble phrasing, unfailing musicianship and the necessary mysterious glamor, you would find all these qualities in her singing this evening. Elena Pankratova is one of the most interesting Färberinen that I have ever heard (I’m including recordings here). Her voice has a cold, slightly metallic quality one would rather expect to find in the role of the Kaiserin. At first, one feels that her voice is two sizes smaller than the required dramatic soprano, but she is the kind of singer who doesn’t show all her trump cards right away; when you’d least expect, there would come solid low notes, powerful acuti, mezza voce and even commendable legato for lyric passages. She has no problem with high notes, but the composer’s unrealistic demands in act III understandably brought about some screechy moments. In any case, the way she could musically show the character’s development during the opera is the reason why she goes to my shortlist, presided by Christa Ludwig and Gwyneth Jones. At this stage of her career, it is very bold of Deborah Polaski to sing a role as demanding as the Amme, especially in its complete version. Although her soprano has always had a dark color and she always had to push a bit for her high b’s and c’s, that does not mean that she was a pushed-up mezzo – and one could hear that this evening. The lack of weight in the bottom of her range was compensated by a noticeable ease around the area where mezzos have their passaggio, what allowed her to be particularly smooth and clean. I don’t believe she was in a very good day though: the voice lacked focus and she had to go full powers to pierce through, what eventually tired her. And her last scene is probably the most demanding of all.
Johan Botha showed no difficulties in the role of the Emperor, producing consistently beefy, clarion sounds, but little variety. As it usually happens, nobody seemed to know what to do with this role. And I can only imagine that a singer needs some coaxing to care for giving that little extra that makes all the difference of the world in a role as ingrate as this one. When I first saw Wolfgang Koch’s Barak in Salzburg, I thought that he could be subtler. But then Barak was not subtle in that production. Now I see that, in normal circumstances, his performance in this role can be as benign as the composer and librettist conceived it. Considering his recent Wotans in Bayreuth, I expected his voice to sound a little bit more voluminous than this evening. Last but not least, Sebastin Holecek was a very powerful Spirit Messenger.
Richard Strauss would be proud of his hometown opera’s orchestra. The Bayerische Staatsorchester offered this evening the dictionary definition of Straussian orchestral playing, offering crystalline, almost fairytale like sonorities and expressive solos throughout. Conductor Kirill Petrenko has followed Strauss’s conduct-it-as-if-it-were-Cosi-fan-tutte advice as a religious credo. He rarely unleashed a true orchestral forte, worked rather from tonal coloring and and brightness, never drowned his singers and offered the kind of clarity that would make following it with the score in hands really unnecessary. It was a performance of unusual musical elegance and intelligence. If I had not seen Thielemann conduct this opera in Salzburg as transparently as today and far more excitingly with a force-of-nature Vienna Philarmonic, I would have considered this evening the best FroSch live in the theatre in my experience. It is very important to stress that the disfiguring cuts that reduce the role of the Amme and make the long scene with the Empress in act III a bit abrupt have been opened out here. This involved a sizeable monologue very commendably dispatched by the non-native-speaker soprano. It was a long evening in a busy trip and I may have missed something, but I have the impression that a couple of tiny cosmetic cuts have made to accommodate the staging.
Well, if this evening had an advantage over the Salzburg Festspiel , this has to do with Krzysztof Warlikowski’s staging. This came as a surprise for me. I have bad memories of his adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire in the Théâtre de l’Odéon, but here he offered more than compensation. This was probably the best staging of this acknowledgedly unstageable opera I have ever seen. Warlikowski proved depth of understanding of the libretto and, if the Freudian approach has been already tried by Robert Carsen in the Vienna State Opera, the consistent way with which the director used all scenic resources to portray the complex situations in the plot - especially the awkward changes in act II – was all but masterly. I am sorry to disappoint those who were expecting a concept too distant from the original story, for this was truly understandable (I mean, until act III, where at least he keeps interest going when every other director more or less gives up). Inspired by Alain Resnais’s L’Année Passée à Marienbad, the story is set in a cure resort where a rich woman (the Empress) traumatized by some sort of dramatic incident with her husband and in strong oblivion and denial of her life is put under the responsibility of a psychiatrist (the Amme) who has developed an unhealthy attachment to her patient. As some sort of therapeutic experiment, she is put in contact with the janitor’s wife – possibly an Internet bride from the East who has found her “looser” husband and new low-life life far below her expectations – whose marriage is getting dangerously close to a violent episode as the one we assume to have happened with the Empress. Once you understand that, Warlikowski does not try to bend the symbology - when the characters talk about a shadow, it’s really a shadow they are talking about. This eventually makes act III difficult – there is an elderly gentleman who is supposed to be Keikobad whose connections with the cure resort is hard to understand. The water of life is indeed a glass of water, but it is hard to make something out of that – especially because the whole “having babies”-moral is more or less it. I have noticed that lots of people have a problem with the “having babies”-issue. If you are interested in my opinion, I don’t believe that this is what Hofmannsthal was trying to say here – although “having babies” is the most elementary way of exerting the selflessness HvH was talking about.