Performing Arts: Music
November 13, 2013
With the Met Opera abstaining from Wagner this season, the company’s German offerings come by way of Richard Strauss (although a freshly translated Die Fledermaus and a Levine-conducted Wozzeck come later). The first of these, Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow), Strauss’ 1919 opera, had its season premiere on Tuesday night. It made for beautiful listening, although the production and the text itself proved to be frustrating.

The opera follows an empress (the daughter of a spirit god, played by Anne Schwanewilms), who lacks a shadow, which supposedly symbolizes her inability to have children. She then enters into a pact with a dyer’s wife (soprano Christine Goerke) to obtain the other woman’s shadow. As their fates entwine, Strauss and his librettist sought to explore maternal psychology and associated societal pressures.

The libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal is a problematic thing – while the Dyer’s wife’s disenchantment with marriage and the prospect of motherhood is often empathic, intelligent writing, the Empress’ ‘spirit goddess’ plight is expressed through fussy, psychoanalytic symbolism that cannot be enjoyed. But why is the falcon spirit crying so? Et cetera.

The most striking element of the production (originally staged in 2001) is the hall of mirrors that serves as both the Empress’ home and the spirit world. And though with each shift in lighting the designer (Herbert Wernicke) usually achieves stunning results, it is still an empty, cavernous space – one that would require fine acting and movement to make hours spent on this stage anything close to captivating.

Yet, none of the singers acted well – they were either static or overacting (Ms. Goerke ludicrously played her storming out of the home in the huffiest of huffs, replete with a proud tossing of her shawl around her shoulder). Bad acting can often feel par for the course at the opera, but it is still our duty to cringe at it.

At times, J. Knighten Smit’s stage direction was baffling as it disregarded elements of the libretto – as in the third act, where the Nurse (Ildikó Komlósi) and the Empress go on discussing whether they should get out of their boat, long after Smit had them abandon it. In fact, the boat was generally in fine comedic form – getting stuck twice during its grand exit, eventually being just yanked off the stage.

It is still gorgeous music, and was generally well sung, with Goerke’s turn as the Dyer’s wife easily the standout. Regular guest conductor Vladimir Jurowski captured the high melodrama as well as the quieter, chamberesque moments of the score, particularly with the effecting violin solo towards the piece’s end.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Geoffrey Lokke

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