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A Tale of Two Frauen

Not one, but two spectacular productions of Strauss's most challenging work.

Reviewed by Seth Lachterman

Elza van den Heever as the Empress. in Lydia Steier's Die Frau ohne Schatten

It's hard to believe. In just a year we have two productions of Die Frau ohne Schatten one in San Francisco and one in Baden-Baden. Each has much to praise, and each reflects an opposing ethos of production philosophy and that of the cryptic and obscure symbolism that permeates the work.

Lydia Steier's version is quite sensational (i.e. a spectacle, over-the-top perhaps) and balances off the joyous Fairy Tale ending with a litany for. infant death to teenage mothers, unwanted, but then wanted. A stab is here as well to Catholic doctrine (the Nurse is both a witch and a nun). The biggest plus is the Berliner Philharmoniker led by Kiril Petrenko who really digs this score.

Baden-Baden Production: Lydia Steier's Fräulein in Wonderland.

  • Berliner Philharmoniker

  • Kirill Petrenko (Conductor)

  • Lydia Steier (Stage Direction)

  • Clay Hilley (Tenor) : Der Kaiser

  • Elza van den Heever (Soprano) : Die Kaiserin

  • Michaela Schuster (Mezzo-soprano) : Die Amme

  • Kseniia Nikolaieva (Soprano) : Eine Stimme von oben

  • Wolfgang Koch (Baritone) : Barack

  • Miina-Liisa Värelä (Soprano) : Die Färberin

Strauss and von Hofmannsthal’s masterpiece, in spite of their desire for commercial success, in spite of the use of tempestuous Paulina Strauss as model for the Wife, in spite of the overwrought overthought amassing of Goethe Mārchen, myth from all around, Eastern hocus-pocus.

Musically, it is unique, and captures the modernism and dissonance of Elektra, Salome, with the ever-increasing chamber music clarity of Ariade von Naxos. No orchestra is larger and more exotic, yet a-glitter with colorful flashes and delighting nuance.

This production tackles the biggest problem with this opera: the idea that unborn souls (“children”) magically await in some ether their hosting for birth. These unborn chant in an oddly harmonized way (very creepy, indeed), appear unexpectedly in a fish-fry, and share in the rousing heroic ending – i.e. salvaged from isolation in transcendence to being channeled in happy uterus-equipped humans. For some, this whole matter is laughable. For others, the “unborn” soul and will to be born is a cri d’ guerre.

Lydia’s vision allows us to envision a future with babies-on-sale at your local “baby store.” Choose a color, an expression, an IQ, or a je ne sais quoi and pay at the counter. Like at a grocery store. Babies are safely (frighteningly) sealed in air-proof see-through plastic. A really horrifying concert. But, it enables Lydia to differentiate the hesitancy of the Wife to have a natural birth (Hubby has a roomful of brothers, left-over babies, and more “inventory”).

The transformation, indeed alchemy of flesh and souls, is the crux of Act II. The Wife’s disenchantment with the tedium of Barak’s life becomes the kindling for the Nurse’s evil ministrations. Barak loves his brothers, the left-over babies, the pregnant teenage girls at the Home, and seems to take his Wife for granted. As long as she supplies food and sex, he’s. fulfilled. Manipulating resentment, the Nurse works hard feigning blandishments, nurturing resentment, fanning her “beauty,” her ego, and her entitlement to sexual and secular gratification. Visions of jewels, servants, and, especially, one hunky young lover begins seed marital crisis. Barak’s bedroom bliss is banished, and he has to eat what the Nurse and Empress, now personal servants.

The extraordinary manner in which Steier lets us see genuine empathy engendered of the erstwhile vacuous Empress is matched by the sudden breakdown of the Wife after she has overstepped any sense of human decency to Barak. She receives oral sex from the Phantasy lover (to a orgasmic shriek) while contemptuously grabbing at Barak’s privates in a rant of emasculating humiliation.

One character that was never conceived by von Hofmannsthal is that of a nameless young mother who has tragically lost her newborn; she is the true “Woman without a shadow.”

She permeates almost every scene in mime, rather overbearingly visually in the throes of grief and afterbirth. She is given one of Barak’s ersatz baby-droids that pacifies her for a while. Barak, who years for the child that his Wife will not bear, sleeps with the young mother who clings to her doll. One might have wished Steier have had some better sense in holding back here as the display is as ludicrous as it is provocative.

With the emperor playing a white-tuxed minstrel, oblivious to anyone but himself, Barak surrounded by the post fetal fetish fabrications, Steier’s “concept” opera succeeds in good part to their fantastic orchestral partnership with the Berliner Philharmoniker and the breathtaking leadership of Kiril Petrenko. The cast is strong: the empress perfect in Strauss’s treacherous tessituras in the opening, and in her becoming a human with a heart. It felt like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. Barak, Wolfgang Koch is a veteran of this role, and delivered a warm, stirring Barak, even if awkwardly placed in questionable staging. His wife, soprano Miina-Liisa Värelä, was a perfect part shrew-part farm-girl-next door. However, mezzo Michaela Schuster, as the nurse stole the show. Never have I seen or heard a more vivid portrayal of this villainess; the odd “Orientalist” vocal inflections, those yo-yo intervals from high to low, were consummately crafted.

The blemish of the production was the ending. Steier’s approach verged on an angry rejoinder to the brimming happiness of the four protagonists as they go forth with shadows and progeny on the way. Our childless mother upstages it all in a manic attempt to find her child’s remains as she digs through a barrow. Strauss’s most beautiful ending, and one that he was thrilled to provide, could hardly have been savored by the focus on the grief-stricken girl.

Steier’s Fraulein in Wonderland is a provocative and appropriately ambivalent statement to the virtues of procreation in our troubled age. The unabridged score and the thrilling music could have been better served with a bit of compromise to Strauss’s greatest opera.

San Francisco Opera Production: David Hockney's Abridged Frau

Emperor David Butt Philip

Empress Camilla Nylund

Nurse Linda Watson

Barak Johan Reuter

His Wife Nina Stemme

Conductor Donald Runnicles

Production David Hockney

Stage Director Roy Rallo

(more to come)

1 Comment

Oct 25, 2023

Looking forward to the second Frau

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