When the 2011 EIF programme was released in April these performances of Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten were for me the most exciting item on the bill. I am a big fan of Strauss's operas, and it is frustrating that performances in the UK are typically confined to Der Rosenkavalier and Salome with recent forays into Elektra and occasional sightings of Ariadne auf Naxos and Capriccio. Die Frau has been at the top of the list of his operas I have longed to see fully staged, and the Mariinsky Opera under Valery Gergiev duly turned in a powerful, compelling performance.
Let us take first the staging, so often the area where opera goes catastrophically wrong. Jonathan Kent (director) and Paul Brown (designer) successfully surmount the opera's many challenges – not least the need for boats, lakes, earthquakes and the particularly complex sequence of scene changes within both Acts 2 and 3. Their biggest weapon is video projections designed by Sven Ortel and Nina Dunn. Unlike so many productions which use such a device these are successfully intergrated into the rest of the staging – much of the time they are simply used to cover scenic transitions with clever deployment of motifs from the opera – clouds to signify the transfers between worlds, birds to recall the falcon. However, they really come into their own in bringing in the key natural elements of which the conjuring of water for the boat bearing the Empress and the Nurse to the temple in Act 3 is especially magically done. Key to the success of the staging, however, is that these projections are linked to convincing physical environments, from the grand double doors marking the Emperor's palace at the very beginning, through the detailed grubby urban environment of Barak's house (including washing machines and a clapped out delivery van) to the hunting environment of the Emperor.
This successful staging is matched by excellent direction of the principals from Kent. Things really take fire from the moment in the second scene of Act 2 when Barak tries to attract his wife and she rejects him. Their positioning apart, sunk in misery creates that sense of tension from the smallest movements that the best productions have and this is, in the main, carried compellingly through the rest of the performance. Similarly, the moment when Barak and his wife are reunited at the very end, her shadow leading him to her is beautifully, simply done and powerfully moving.
Musically, the best work of the evening comes from the superb playing of the Mariinsky Opera Orchestra under Valery Gergiev. Apart from the third act where there is just a slight sense of flagging he gives a real shape and drive to this score and the orchestra rose to the challenge unsparingly. Act Two was for me the highlight but this performance convincingly makes the case for this as a truly great opera which deserves to be much more secure in the repertoire than it is.
Vocally things were not quite as perfect but the performances of the five principals were brave and committed. The five performing tonight and Saturday (tomorrow you get a second cast) were Mlada Khudolei (The Empress), Viktor Lutsiuk (The Emperor), Edem Umerov (Barak), Olga Sergeyeva (The Dyer's Wife) and Olga Savova (The Nurse). None of them are quite in the Johan Botha category of being able to sound as fresh at the end as at the beginning, and at times from all of them one could have wished for a little less vibrato and a little more beauty of tone but, and this is the crucial point, they carry these punishing roles through to the end, and there is more than enough of real dramatic power in each of their performances to outweigh any vocal issues. Highlights for me were Umerov and Sergeyeva's duet at the start of Act Three, her attempt to renounce her shadow at the close of Act Two, and Lutsiuk's two glorious monologues in the first two Acts. Also worthy of mention is Evgeny Ulanov's forbidding turn as the Messenger.
The other slight flaw musically arose from issues of balance, in particular from the Dress Circle the orchestral sound often swamped the various off-stage effects – but it is a measure of how dramatically, musically and scenically compelling the evening was that something which on another occasion might have had me gnashing my teeth was merely a small niggle.
This is a glorious conclusion to the 2011 Festival. All credit to Jonathan Mills for programming this work. If you can, buy a ticket if there are any left or queue for returns. The work is unlikely to appear in Scotland again soon, and this performance proves what I somehow felt from listening to it on disc, that it is a masterpiece. It is to be hoped that one of our native companies will get it back into their repertoire with all speed.
After the performance, Mills announced the appointment of Gergiev as the Festival's honorary president (a role previously held by Charles Mackerras until his death last year), so doubtless we will be seeing plenty more of him in the years to come.
I was there too, and was hugely impressed - the more so as Gergiev had his nose in the score throughout, and had very little eye contact with singers or orchestra. Clearly they know each other well enough - and the performers were well enough prepared - for this to have very little effect.
I suspect the theme/plot is the main reason why it's not done more often. It's silly even by not-very-high operatic standards and frankly, is as misogynist as it is preposterous. Perhaps it's just the current political moment, but I found a storyline in which the women characters are tormented into motherhood by a chorus of their unborn children (!) very hard to take. That said, once I decided to enjoy the music & not to pay *too* much attention to what was going on I thought it was pretty gloriously done, the playing especially.
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