When the Royal Opera announced their 2013-14 season last year, this new production of Strauss's too rarely performed masterpiece was the highlight for me. However, from the outset I had my doubts – not about the musical team which promised to be (and was) superb, but about the production, judging from reviews of performances at La Scala. Fortunately it isn't a production to make one want to howl with frustration. It's undeniably a very carefully thought out interpretation which can (though I think with some exceptions) be fitted successfully to the text. But as will be explained, there is a price to be paid, and in my view it is too high.
But let us start with the really fine things. Musically this is a remarkable performance. One of the reasons Die Frau is rarely performed is because of the difficulty of assembling the necessary vocal talent. The only previous time I saw it, a Mariinsky Theatre production at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011, the voices were not in the top class, though one forgave shortcomings because the production and orchestral drive were so spell-binding. This time the Royal Opera House has achieved remarkable things – there isn't a weak link in this cast. Johan Reuter (Barak) and Elena Pankratova (Barak's Wife) make the strongest impression in the first two acts – their emotional punch in terms of the narrative is least weakened by the production and thus the fine singing and the direction are in harmony. Emily Magee's Empress commits herself fully and convincingly to the production (which requires a lot of her), and her singing particularly in the taxing third act is again outstanding, but for reasons which we'll come on to the production contrives to reduce the emotional connection. Perhaps the mark of greatness to all three of them is their capacity not simply to power through the heavier passages but to sing with precision softness in the more intimate sections. Johan Botha (Emperor) I found less fresh voiced than in 2010's Tannhauser but he still holds forth strongly and ringingly. Michaela Schuster's Nurse has great presence and much of her singing has great character but it isn't a voice quite so much to my taste. The supporting roles were all impeccably taken, many of them by members of the House's Jette Parker Young Artists Programme. In the pit the Royal Opera Orchestra under Bychkov were on magnificent form. The richness of sound from all corners of the orchestra, but perhaps especially the string solos, was memorable. Bychkov doesn't approach the work with quite the white heat intensity of Gergiev in Edinburgh but he reads the overall shape far more convincingly (particularly in the Third Act), and the many intimate passages have a beauty here of a far superior order.
Yet, overall, this performance did not erase the memory of Edinburgh, and this is because that musical excellence is not matched by the production. Jonathan Kent's production embraced this work as fairy tale with appropriate visual richness. Claus Guth largely, though not completely, shies away from this – there are some animals (we'll come back to them), there is some stone, the dyer has some tools and a split up bed – but otherwise the production is basically confined to a set of institutional wooden panelled rooms. It's a visual picture that does get a little tiring on the eyes over the course of three acts. Guth's more significant, and problematic decision, is the dramatic framing. We open and close on the Empress in a hospital bed, and the clear implication is that everything else that happens in the entire opera is a figment of her imagination. The whole story is an extended dream sequence. Now, I don't say that there isn't material in text and context which can justify this approach. This is not a production, broadly speaking, where you feel constant violence is being done to the text (though there is more than I was altogether happy about). But I came away with significant objections to it. It was never sufficiently clear to me why the Empress was in this institution. A figure wanders round with a stick, an enormous beard, and antlers on his head through most of the piece – sort of Kiekobad and sort of some kind of more generalised father figure (I did wonder afterwards whether it might have been Freud). At the end he's lying dead in a corner of the stage. I presume, though I wouldn't swear to it, that we were supposed to think of the whole story as framed by the Empress's struggle to kill the father figure. For me this created two considerable problems. First, I just never felt there was enough at stake in terms of this framing to justify three acts of dream. Second, by making everybody else on stage (with the, as far as I could see, not very meaningful exception of the Nurse) figments of the Empress's imagination, you create a feeling of being cheated. The music, and indeed the dramatic performances, particularly of Barak and his wife, is constantly asking you to sympathise with these people, and indeed I was very much moved by them – then suddenly they're whisked away and I was made to feel I might as well not have bothered caring since they did not in fact exist. The radiance of the ending, for me, went for nothing.
An additional issue with the framing is that I think you could do all the best of the clever things that Guth does without it – the emphasis on doubling, the playing around with the meaning of shadow and so on. You just don't need that extra layer – and in fact that layer kept taking away from the many powerful things within the story proper precisely because I was nagged at by the question of whether any of it was really happening. Finally, there are smaller presentational and movement issues which further let things down. There is, for me, no excuse for the fact that periodically during Acts One and Two the Empress, the woman whose lack of a shadow is the centre of the drama, is casting one onto the walls. No doubt it will be argued that this is just another figment of her dream, but it just isn't good enough – it is too much in visible contradiction to the text. I also found the various animals, who do appear, mostly confusing and distracting. No doubt, again, it is all supposed to be bringing out the Empress's inability to slough off her spiritual element and become fully human, but it didn't sufficiently work for me. The children in Act Three were particularly unfortunate – fussing about just when the music is becoming transcendant. The end of Act Two is also a problem – it ought to have a cataclysmic feeling to it and the visual impression wasn't sufficient – this was also a rare place where Guth's management of people seemed to let him down. All of this is a pity because there are some marvellous moments of interaction between the characters – the Empress's ongoing efforts to draw the two humans together were beautifully done.
Musically, this is an outstanding evening. Production wise I don't question that Guth is a very clever man, but it is a triumph of head over heart. It seems to me that he views the fairy tale nature of the story as a problem, whereas I would argue that if you embrace that aspect (as Jonathan Kent did), if you accept magic, transformations and spirits as key dimensions to these struggles the piece is actually much less problematic than people persist in thinking. These things happen in fairy tales, and fairy tales can be very dark and powerful without discarding them (see Sondheim's Into the Woods and the childless Baker and His Wife – not usually regarded as a problem piece). One performance remains, musically it is definitely worth picking up a return. I just wish I could have had these musicians, and Jonathan Kent's production.