Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Frank Miller? Director Kasper Holt seems to find a connection between the philosophical fairy-tale world of Die Frau ohne Schatten and neo-noir comics in his new production of R. Strauss’s opera for Copenhagen’s Royal Theater. Even if one finds hard to see that, one must acknowledge that using projections over a black screen and limiting the scenic action to individual spaces that work as panels on a page is a clever ideal when one does not really have the means to deal with the impossible special effects in the libretto. I just don’t see why the stage design should have a “Sin City” atmosphere that does not go with the plot. Images of Keikobad show him as some sort of mob big shot, while the Emperor and the Empress have golden crowns (they even sleep with it) and Barak’s Wife has a regular “Frau ohne Schatten”-costume. The incoherence involves acting styles too – the Empress acts as if she were playing children’s theatre, the Nurse goes for the Bette-Davis approach, Barak acts naturalistically, while the Emperor doesn’t act at all. I have the impression that the director really wanted to make a Frank Miller staging, then someone offered him Frau ohne Schatten and it had to do. It he had really tried, it could have been interesting. Some moments – such as the Empress’s nightmare or a particularly insightful and aesthetically compelling judgment scene – offered intelligent solutions where normally one is usually let down by unconvincing imagery.
I had never been in the new Copenhagen opera house before and cannot tell if the acoustics or conductor Michael Schønwandt were to blame for the strange sound picture: when playing alone, strings had a bright, pleasant sound, but the full orchestra sounded brassy and poorly blended. Singers’ voices could seem a bit drained of bloom (in Duisburg, Linda Watson sounded quite richer-toned in comparison). Woodwind had also no problem to preside over textures, but – even if the result was unusually structurally clean – the overall impression was of disjointedness. Lyric scenes worked very finely, though, for Schønwandt has a very particular way of producing flowing “cantabile” in his string section. In fact, after an excitingly well-shaped closing scene to act II, the whole performance seemed to find its focus. Act III was truly praiseworthy – the orchestral playing in the difficult melodrama was really thrilling and if around the end there were still some episodes of brassiness (and overloud percussion), conductor Michael Schønwandt had already sold you the concept.
I haven’t seen Sylvia Valayre in a while. Last time, I had the impression that she artificially darkened the tone to sound “dramatic”, but I don’t recall the worn out tone she had this evening. But for some Rysanek-like loud, full yet floating notes (high c’s and above were pretty solid), her soprano did not flow, often flapped in a bothersome way, shredded in her attempts at mezza voce, sounded hooty in the middle register and showed a bumpy break into unsubtle chest voice in the lower end of her range. Although there was no interpretation to speak of and the results were often unpleasant, it must be said that some tricky high-and-loud passages were adeptly handled. Maybe if she had tried the role earlier in her career, it could have worked better. Linda Watson’s performance was consistent with that of Duisburg: she is hardly electrifying, but sings the role with unusual finish and musicianship. In this production, the Dyer Wife is more vulnerable and almost regrets her fits of bitchiness soon after she had them – the approach works well for her temper and voice. Again, she was the best singer in the cast. Ildiko Szönyi has the elements of the part of the Nurse in her mezzo – she has a quick, clear delivery of the text, is capable of strong, focused low notes and can produce some piercing acuti when this is necessary. Unfortunately, all this is a bit chaotically handled and the final impression is of tentativeness. Pity – she is an intelligent performer and has something to say in this role.
I understand that Johnny van Hal frequently sings Heldentenor roles – he has a large voice all right – but I wonder if he was properly trained to deal with them. The voice has a glaringly open quality and his high notes sound squeezed and disconnected. His first appearance was hardly heroic or ardent. “Effortful” would be a good description. But then, the scene in the falconry showed an entirely different singer, phrasing with heady tones in an almost Mozartian way. Although nature probably gave him a Wagnerian voice, I couldn’t help noticing that he just feels more comfortable singing this lighter way. John Lundgren was a sensitive and stylish Barak. He has a surprisingly dark and round bass-baritone and is able to retain this quality even in his high notes. Although the sound is not throaty, it is a tiny little bit muffled, what prevents him from piercing through when the orchestra is too loud or when singing with a dramatic soprano like Linda Watson.