A joint production for La Scala and Covent Garden
As the most intricate and still most controversial collaboration between Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, Die Frau ohne Schatten has gained over the years a cult following (manifested by seven new European productions within the last couple of years). These devoted enthusiasts either revel in its extreme musical opulence or fret over the challenges of its perceived pretension and misogynism – or both.
Claus Guth’s new production for La Scala and Royal Opera, Covent Garden (where it is due to launch the 2013-14 season) has just opened in Milan; it is an elegantly staged subversion and, at the end, a strongly reasoned denunciation of the Kinder Küche Kirche assumptions that can, if sought, be found within the philosophical framework of the opera.
The opera’s theme of fertility and barrenness as female fulfilment and failure, that offends contemporary sensibility, is opened up for critical reflection. The Empress who desires the shadow is in the grip of physical and mental pain: a hysteric, she might once have been called, and cared for and mistreated as such. At times she embodies both the Nurse (sung by Michaela Schuster as a scene-stealing shrew) who, according to Guth, ‘wants only evil and yet can do only good’, and the Dyer’s Wife (Elena Pankratova, always sympathetic in what can be a screech of a part) who wishes to relieve herself of the burdens of wifely servitude and dreams of taking a lover. And so, as Empress, Emily Magee is on stage almost throughout (like Elektra, like Salome), singing and acting with untiring beauty if not the last degree of individual vulnerability that her reduced state would seem to demand. Her task is made marginally easier by a version of the score (perhaps required by Guth’s vision as much as house policy) that not only takes the bad old cuts but a few new ones too, reducing both her pivotal monodrama to two miserable lines and indeed the whole of Act 3 to a broken-backed series of highlights. In that context the conductor Marc Albrecht does well to maintain a dramatic thread, though on the night I went his efforts were severely hampered by a brass section out of time and tune.
In a small but crucial twist, Barak the Dyer becomes a tanner, stripping and gutting a gazelle that, in the person of the Empress, represents the feminine ‘other’ of which he remains oblivious. So, then, are the colours of his occupation stripped away, leaving a heavy mahogany surround, offset by fragile white and pale blue for the two women and black for the forces of oppression. The latter most definitely include the Emperor, sung with easy but caricatured heroism - a teenage Wotan - by Johan Botha. In a small but annoying twist, Barak also becomes a sot and a boor, and Falk Struckmann duly turns the Third-Act hymn to matrimonial union, ‘Mir anvertraut’, into a reinforcement of male oppression, far distant from the Lieder-baritones of old who made this part their own. More remarkable still is Guth’s success in making some of the most radiant closing pages of all opera curdle with disenchantment. One senses, as one often does with modern productions of lasting significance – and I think this is one – that the drama’s subjects have learnt little from their experience except, in this case, the Empress herself, perhaps the only ‘real’ actor of the piece, who may find as she gazes out and up towards the light, locked in her thoughts and still under the Nurse’s surveillance, that all her worst nightmares have come true. Irreverent Anglophones may be reminded of Sue Ellen and Dallas.