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SCRUTINY | Letters From Munich: Die Frau ohne Schatten

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Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Bavarian State Opera (Photo Wilfried Hösl)
Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Bavarian State Opera (Photo: Wilfried Hösl)

Ricarda Merbeth (Kaiserin), Elena Pankratova (Dyer’s Wife), Michaela Schuster (Amme), Burkhard Fritz (Kaiser), Wolfgang Koch (Barak). Krzysztof Warlikowski, director. Kirill Petrenko, conductor. Bayerisches Staatsorchester. Bavarian State Opera. July 5.

MUNICH — The first of my five-opera Munich musical sojourn began with Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. I had seen this very production when it was brand new, at the 2014 Bayerische Festspiele, starring Adrianne Pieczonka (Kaiserin), Johan Botha (Kaiser), Deborah Polaski (Amme), John Lundgren (Barak), and Elena Pankratova (Dyer’s Wife), under the baton of Sebastian Weigle. It was a revelation at the time, enthralling for its resplendent vocalism and phenomenal orchestral playing. This Warlikowski production, while quirky, hit the mark.

Three years later Munich Opera is having a revival of this show at the Festival. It’s this company’s practice to engage as much as possible the soloists from the premiere, given the tight rehearsal schedule. But it was (mostly) not to be this time: Pieczonka withdrew at the beginning of rehearsals due to a bad case of tracheitis, and Botha is no longer of this world, sadly having passed away too soon. Their replacements were top-flight singers—Ricarda Merbeth and Burkhard Fritz, respectively. Amme this time around was portrayed by Michaela Schuster, and Wolfgang Koch took over as Barak, all under the helm of Munich Opera music director Kirill Petrenko. The question is, could the magic be repeated?

I needn’t have worried. The new ensemble cast was every bit as strong, and in some cases even surpassed the original. Munich Opera strives to engage singers who physically resemble the ones they are replacing, to ensure a fit with the overall aesthetics of the production. With the same costume and hairstyle as Pieczonka, I couldn’t even tell it was Merbeth and not Pieczonka. Equally striking was the resemblance between Deborah Polaski and Michaela Schuster, the new Amme, with that white costume and white hair topped with its enormous chignon. Vocally, Schuster sang with a freer top voice than Polaski, and she chewed scenery like there was no tomorrow. I had just seen her sing this role in the Berliner Staatsoper in April; she’s an incredible Amme—the best of our time. The staging in the Warlikowski direction is very understated for the Kaiserin; she is tranquilised by injections in Act One. But by the Act Three Judgement Scene, Merbeth dominated the stage and was wonderful.

The men were equally up to the task. While Burkhard Fritz didn’t look quite like Johan Botha (who does?) he nevertheless sang like a God, with equally great high notes, despite his rather one-dimensional role. Wolfgang Koch was a sympathetic Barak, the most likeable character in the whole opera. He offered his trademark warm, sturdy tone, and he has some of the most grateful music in the score. He was well-partnered by Russian dramatic soprano Elena Pankratova, who reprised her justly famous Dyer’s Wife from three years ago. The Russian dramatic soprano is arguably the definitive Farberin today, although I also loved Irene Theorin’s take on this role, which I saw in Berlin back in April. Sebastian Holecek was a powerful Geisterbote.

Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Bavarian State Opera (Photo Wilfried Hösl)
Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Bavarian State Opera (Photo: Wilfried Hösl)

Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski’s work has always been provocative and unconventional, such as his gay Eugene Onegin for Munich some years ago, or his Die Gezeichneten premiered recently. Festival attendees had the luxury of seeing the Strauss and Schreker pieces side by side on consecutive evenings—a fascinating musical, intellectual and visual exercise. Both pieces are from roughly the same period and both showcase heavy Freudian symbolism at every turn. It is said that Frau is a sort of “Magic Flute for adults:” in a nutshell, the Kaiserin, a supernatural spirit, wants to have children and to prevent her husband from turning to stone. To do that, she needs a shadow. With the help of her nurse, the Amme, they go down to Earth to find a woman who might be willing to give up her own shadow. Amme uses magic to get the earthly Dyer’s Wife to renounce motherhood. At the end, the Kaiserin realises it is wrong to achieve her own happiness at the expense of others. She refuses, and miraculously her shadow appears, because she has “passed the test” by doing the right thing.

Warlikowski focuses on the surfeit of symbolism in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s complex libretto, signifying the Kaiserin’s internal struggle and her eventual revelation and personal growth, which represents the kernel of truth in this work. It’s not an easy piece for the audience, despite its sublime music. It requires substantial “homework” beforehand to get the most out of a performance. Thankfully, for the first time, Munich Opera is now offering English surtitles in addition to the usual German! Warlikowski goes for broke visually, giving us lots of silent video footage, a deer on stage, figures wearing falcon heads, all rather enigmatic. Near the end, the Kaiser is on the operating table, having turned to stone.

Seeing it now three years later, I find myself warming to Warlikowski’s vision more than I had previously. To be sure, some of his directorial touches may seem willful or indulgent. At the very end of the opera, the projections of images of King Kong, Gandhi, Marilyn Monroe, Superman et al. imply that with the Kaiserin’s self-sacrifice, the human species continues—and look at the great results! Three years ago, I’d dismissed it as gimmicky; perhaps now I’m more willing to accept it as Warlikowski’s attempt to inject a touch of fun in a very serious opera. Also something I hadn’t noticed before is the strong hint of Barak’s sexual dysfunction in his Act One scene with the Dyer’s Wife. In this context, their rocky marriage makes a lot of sense. Also in this production, the Amme is portrayed as having gone insane and she’s put in a straitjacket and led away. Sure, why not…

On the musical side of things, calling it “superb” is a near understatement. The singing was, as expected, a joy to the ears, backed by truly superlative playing of the wonderful Bayerisches Staatsorchester under Music Director Kirill Petrenko. He drew torrents of magnificent sounds from the pit, providing galvanising climaxes yet also capable of the most delicate, ethereal moments. The Munich audience simply adores him, with the most demonstrative ovations I’ve yet witnessed there. It was announced some time ago that he will be leaving. He will be sorely missed. (It’s rumoured that the beloved Royal Opera House helmsman Antonio Pappano may be taking over after he finishes his term at Covent Garden. We’ll have to wait and see.) An auspicious start to my annual Bavarian State Opera musical sojourn.

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Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
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