This year’s Berlin Staatsoper Festtage’s operatic première is Claus Guth’s new staging of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten under Zubin Mehta, whom I had previously seen in the same theatre some years ago conduct Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus with the same leading soprano seen this evening.
Mehta has one recording of Salome with the Berlin Philharmonic to his credit, but he is hardly a regular in what regards the operatic production of the Bavarian composer. Although I cannot tell how often he conducted Die Frau ohne Schatten in his long career, the first impression I had today was of extreme caution. To his defense, the Italianate orchestral sound, very transparent and light, was very flattering to his cast and made for great vertical clarity. I would not say, however, that structural clarity was truly there, since the complex poliphony concocted by Strauss was shown rather at face value, some important motivic references sunk into the background of restatement of musical ideas already presented as they were shown before or among accompaniment figures. When one listens to Herbert von Karajan’s live recording from Vienna (with Leonie Rysanek and Christa Ludwig), one can see how helpful the masterly hand of the conductor can be in guiding his audience through this multilayered score. Thus, Mehta’s tool to achieve “legibility” was a certain kind of fastidiousness that involved a regular beat in a very steady and considerate tempo. This was again very helpful for his singers, but did not help to provide the necessary theatrical effects. The end of act II, where the stage director too seemed to have had lost his hand, was this approach’s main victim – the impression was rather of politeness in its clean transversal of the tricky harmonic development. Compare it to Karl Böhm’s broadcast (from Vienna? I would have to check, again with Rysanek and Ludwig) and the Austrian conductor will knock you out in an awesome display of excitement and precision. Most surprisingly, though, was the positive effect of the Indian conductor’s organized and restrained view on act III, here unusually subtle and coherent in his unifiying control of the proceedings. As the last act rarely works out in live performances, I left the theatre with the sensation of witnessing something special.
In any case, the cast gathered for these performances would make sure that this was something special. I have always admired Camilla Nylund’s solid technique and tonal warmth, but this evening she offered a performance of outstanding finesse and beauty, floating velvety sounds throughout her range even in the most impossibly difficult passages, without ever disregarding clarity of enunciation and the dramatic demands of every scene, including the Kaiserin’s act III melodram, not a small feat for someone whose first language is not German. She was ideally contrasted with Iréne Theorin’s powerful and bright-toned Färberin. The Swedish soprano was in exceptionally good voice, particularly smooth in the middle register that is not usually her forte. She could float beautiful mezza voice, even in very high-lying passages and scored many points in subtleness. Only in her act III duet with Barak, her intent of singing softly taxed her, but she soon recovered to her best form, adding stunning dramatic acuti to a performance abundant in vocal excitement. Burkhard Fritz sang the part of the Kaiser with clean sense of line and something very close to the spontaneity of an Italian tenor, but his high notes soon became tight and, somewhere in the middle of his act II solo, he started to sound tired and dealt with the rest of the part with prudence rather than abandon. This is my third Barak from Wolfgang Koch and probably the best one. Although the conductor challenged him with slow tempi, his bass baritone sounded generously round and rich. Moreover, his personality is extremely proper to this role. I leave the best for last. I had seen Michaela Schuster’s Amme in Salzburg with Christian Thielemann, but found it small-scaled. Now I am inclined to believe that the unimaginative production must have straitjacked her (and the smaller auditorium in Berlin is an undeniable advantage), for this evening she just stole the show, even in such prestigious company. She projected her high mezzo insolently, handled the text in a way that would make Meryl Streep envious and twisted the audience around her little finger. During the directorial miscalculations in the end of act II, she proved to be a secret weapon, commanding everyone’s attention with her precise body movements and facial expression. Bravissima.
Although Jung-Sang Han showed an attractively dark tonal quality to his Erscheinung des Junglings and Barak’s brothers (Karl-Micahel Ebnerm Alfredo Daza and Grigoery Shkarupa) were unusually smooth sounding, the voices of the unborn/imaginary servants to the Dyer’s Wife were not properly cast. The impression was of extreme effortfulness, what ruined the effect of everyone of their “appearances” .
Claus Guth’s new staging is inspired by August Strindberg’s Dream Play. The oneiric atmosphere being the perfect excuse for many sensible and clever solutions for many of the unrealistic stage instructions. It also allowed him to deal with the mirrored structure of the story by showing the Dyer’s Wife and the Nurse as projections of the Empress’s own personality and Barak as an idealized version of the Emperor. Here, the Empress, as in many other stagings, is a patient in an institution, suffering from something very close to catatonia. Then the libretto’s most problematic feature (i.e., that the Emperor is punished by the Empress’s inability to produce a shadow) is avoided by showing her as the one “turned to stone”. The dramatic moment in which she demands to be punished by Keikobad is nothing but her seeing herself bed-ridden in the hospital. However, the most curious dramatic device developed by the conductor is the fact that the patient does not recover. Her disease is actually her only way of achieving her connection to a husband a children she cannot really deal with in real life. Although there was some booing in the audience, I have to say this is unfair: this was alright a bizarre solution, but surprisingly one that delivered the best act III I have ever seen either in the theatre or in videos. I won’t say “if I had to change something”, for I would have changed a couple of things, but I couldn’t help finding the video projections subpar in quality. More creative images in sharper quality would have done all the difference in the world. Christian Schmidt’s sets and costumes were otherwise beautiful and very efficient.