Alemania

Higher Powers

Jesse Simon
miércoles, 10 de abril de 2024
Bösch, Die Frau ohne Schatten © 2024 by Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah Bösch, Die Frau ohne Schatten © 2024 by Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah
Dresde, sábado, 23 de marzo de 2024. Semperoper Dresden. Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten. David Bösch, director. Eric Cutler (Kaiser), Camilla Nylund (Empress), Evelyn Herlitzius (Nurse), Andreas Bauer Kanabas (Spirit Messenger), Nikola Hillebrand (Guardian of the Temple), Martin Mitterrutzner (Apparition of a Youth), Lee-ann Dunbar (Voice of the Falcon), Christa Mayer (Voice from Above), Oleksandr Pushniak (Barak), Miina-Liisa Värelä (Barak’s Wife), Rafael Fingerlos (One-armed Brother), Tilmann Rönnebeck (One-eyed Brother), and Tansel Akzeybek (Hunchbacked Brother). Sächsiche Staatskapelle Dresden. Christian Thielemann, conductor
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The mythological and the domestic are the two central threads that run through Strauss’ operas, and if Die Frau ohne Schatten falls unquestionably into the former category, both its spirit and human worlds are rendered familiar by a desire for domestic stability shared by the four protagonists. For the new production at Dresden’s Semperoper, director David Bösch managed to concoct a staging in which elements of the magical and mundane were held in near-perfect balance, letting neither its fantastic elements nor its human quarrels seem intrusive or implausible; when combined with a first-rate cast and the transcendent refinement of Christian Thielemann’s musical direction, the production offered a fittingly grand tribute to Strauss and von Hofmannsthal’s greatest achievement.

The story of Die Frau is set within a densely symbolic world of von Hofmannsthal’s imagining – it has few obvious connections with the mainstream of Classical or Norse mythologies – and perhaps for this reason there has been a tendency within the past decade to treat it not as a simple fairy tale, but to respond to its narrative challenges with conceptual readings of commensurate density. While this approach has resulted in some memorable versions, the central (and admirable) ambition of Mr Bösch’s staging seems to have been to tell a potentially complex story as clearly and straightforwardly as possible. Straightforward, however, need not mean conservative, and the success of Mr Bösch’s vision is that he was able to convey the essence of the story while avoiding the path of traditionalism.

Evelyn Herlitzius (Die Amme), Miina-Liisa Värelä (Baraks Frau), and Komparserie. Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten. Christian Thielemann, conductor. David Bösch, director. Semperoper Dresden, March 2024. © 2024 by Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah.Evelyn Herlitzius (Die Amme), Miina-Liisa Värelä (Baraks Frau), and Komparserie. Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten. Christian Thielemann, conductor. David Bösch, director. Semperoper Dresden, March 2024. © 2024 by Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah.

Mr Bösch has developed a signature style that draws heavily on an imagined post-war, working-class suburbia, albeit one that is never so rigorously realistic as to exclude moments of fanciful beauty. That world was nowhere to be found in the opening scenes of the first act, which unfolded in a monochromatic dream world made of diaphanous sheets. The human world, to which the action shifts mid-way through the act, was in its own way just as unreal – a grimy concrete space, lit by fluorescent tubes and furnished with vats of ominously gaseous chemicals, in which the Dyer and his wife practiced their trade – but the ugly armchair, the wood-panelled television set and the temperamental washing machine anchored it just enough in Mr Bösch’s suburban reality to offer maximum contrast with the billowy placelessness of the spirit world while giving the scenes that unfolded there a familiar domesticity.

Indeed it was the stylised squalor of the human world that brought out Mr Bösch’s most inspired direction. The long confrontation between Barak and his wife at the centre of the first act was close to perfect, a beautifully modulated quarrel of conflicting desires in which neither party came across as unreasonable or unsympathetic: Barak’s legendary good nature was balanced by a distinct lumpen streak while the Färberin’s harsh tongue and hard exterior seemed born of genuine disappointment. The scene was an extraordinary achievement: completely unforced, but equally free of wasted movement, dramaturgical laziness or condescension. Admittedly not all of the scenes were equally rooted in naturalism, but even the opera’s intrusions of the supernatural showcased Mr Bösch’s ability to integrate moments of convincing spectacle without disrupting the narrative flow: the explosion of pink and descent of twirling dresses during the Färberin’s first act visit from the Empress and the Nurse were a delight, the appearances of the falcon were well-handled, and the unreal events of the third act maintained a consistent logic.

Camilla Nylund (Die Kaiserin). Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten. Christian Thielemann, conductor. David Bösch, director. Semperoper Dresden, March 2024. © 2024 by Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah.Camilla Nylund (Die Kaiserin). Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten. Christian Thielemann, conductor. David Bösch, director. Semperoper Dresden, March 2024. © 2024 by Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah.

Of course the staging was not infallible. The spirit-world scenes, despite their visual grace, never achieved the same levels of dramatic concentration as those in Barak’s house, and throughout the evening there was far too much reliance on video projections. The video imagery – some based in silent-film expressionism, some obviously beholden to the most modern digital trickery – was both brilliantly executed and extremely clever in its thematic relationship to the story, but it also felt unnecessary in the face of such a well-assembled staging; in the latter scenes of the second act it was so prevalent as to be distracting, while in crucial moments of the third act, especially the reunion of the Kaiser and Kaiserin, it came across as a lack of inspiration. Such minor points, however, could not detract from the staging’s overwhelming strengths.

Even if the staging had been less compelling, the evening would still have been memorable for its performances. Camilla Nylund started singing the role of the Kaiserin around eight years ago and has since become one its most exciting modern interpreters. Two of her finest scenes on this evening showcased both her mastery of emotional range and her ability to move plausibly between extremes: the peaceful awakening of her first appearance was transformed to sudden dread when confronted with the urgent necessity of finding a shadow; and in the third act monologue she built from a softly-phrased purity – almost a direct extension of the gentle solo-violin passage that introduces the scene – to an existential crisis of monumental proportions. Yet the secret strength of her performance was an ability to remain in the background without losing her purchase on the thread of the drama. If much of the first two acts shift their focus to the Färberin, Ms Nylund’s brief monologue in the second and, especially, her rejection of the nurse in the third act came as immediate reminders of the Kaiserin’s centrality.

Evelyn Herlitzius (Die Amme), and Andreas Bauer Kanabas (Der Geisterbote). Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten. Christian Thielemann, conductor. David Bösch, director. Semperoper Dresden, March 2024. © 2024 by Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah.Evelyn Herlitzius (Die Amme), and Andreas Bauer Kanabas (Der Geisterbote). Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten. Christian Thielemann, conductor. David Bösch, director. Semperoper Dresden, March 2024. © 2024 by Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah.

In Miina-Liisa Värelä the production had a Färberin of equal distinction. Ms Värelä gave an excellent reading of the role a year ago at a concert performance in Berlin, but on this evening her approach was more nuanced and more persuasive. In the extraordinary first act scene with Barak she had an almost conversational ease of delivery which gave her barbed banter a caustic edge without tipping over into mean-spirited hectoring. Indeed Ms Värelä was able to suggest that the Färberin’s increasingly haughty, increasingly irrational behaviour came not from the temptations of the Nurse, but from her frustrations with the uncommunicative, uncomprehending Barak; these frustrations reached a magnificent peak in the final scene of the second act, which was less a taunting farewell than a final frenzied attempt to make her husband realise there was indeed something wrong with their relationship.

Evelyn Herlitzius is well-known for her complete dedication to character, and her Nurse was unsurprisingly electrifying. In her first three dialogues – with the messenger, the emperor and, finally, the empress – she made no secret of her agenda, nor of her contempt for humanity; but if she established the Nurse early as an unambiguously antagonistic presence, she always stopped well short of exaggerated villainy. Indeed, the confidence and subtle control she brought to each of her appearances in the first two acts allowed the Nurse to emerge as the fulcrum on which the fates of the four characters were balanced. Even in the third act, there was more connivance than actual fear in her attempts to steer the Kaiserin away from the threshold.

Eric Cutler had the right heroic tone for the Kaiser, but there were moments in his phrasing that could sound overmannered; if his crisp, highly-articulated syllables had a theatrical quality that worked with the fantastic adventure described in the first act monologue, the approach seemed oddly matched to the emotional volatility of his second act scene. Oleksandr Pushniak, however, was an effortlessly natural Barak: in the first act he was an ideal sparring partner for Ms Värelä, balancing obvious frustrations with an unfeigned generosity of spirit; and the slow-dawning confusion that overtakes the character during the course of the second act was no less credibly rendered than the overwhelming remorse of the third. The evening also benefitted from the presence of an unusually strong spirit messenger and some excellent off-stage voices.

Christian Thielemann has few contemporary equals when it comes to the operas of Strauss, and in recent years he has emerged as one of Die Frau’s greatest twenty-first-century champions. In addition to his insistence on performing the work without the cuts that marred most post-war performances, his appreciation of the score’s profundities is apparent in nearly every bar. While his tempi on this evening were never broad to the point of slowing down the action, there was a sense of reverent wonder in his patient approach to the score’s most sensuous passages. The brief orchestral reconciliation of Barak and his wife in the first act was luminous, and the bittersweet finale of that same act, with its offstage male chorus, was taken at a hypnotic pace that captured the full grace of Barak’s domestic pathos. Of course, Mr Thielemann had no trouble summoning stormy playing from the orchestra – in the Erdenflug interlude or the Kaiserin’s turbulent third act monologue – but it was the finale of the second act, where the cruelty of the Färberin’s words and the threat of higher powers were undercut continually by flashes of beauty, in which the range and depth of Mr Thielemann’s interpretive insights were most apparent.

Since the 1950s, Die Frau has been something of an ‘event’ opera, not perhaps as widely loved as Rosenkavalier or Ariadne, but a work whose perceived inaccessibility is overcome easily by the presence of great singers and a sympathetic conductor. But if appreciation of the opera is enhanced by one’s willingness to immerse themselves in von Hofmannsthal’s arcane mythology – or at least to suspend their reservations – Mr Bösch’s staging made a solid argument that its underlying story is no less universal than the emotional spectrum of Strauss’ score. And when a well-told staging is combined with appropriately grand musical forces – as they were on this evening – there can be no doubt that we are in the presence of a masterpiece.

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