Saturday, 15 March 2014

The Voices of the Unborn: Opening Night of Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Royal Opera House

To begin a performance of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten with an eye-catching shadowplay cast by the body of the very woman whose lack of a shadow gives the work its title is an act either of extraordinary bravery or extreme folly. Either way, it is characteristic of Claus Guth’s production as a whole: exquisite to look at, but seldom operating in service to the clear elucidation of Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s already somewhat convoluted story. 

Flush from the success of Der Rosenkavalier, Strauss and Hofmannstahl had sought to create a modern fairytale. What they came up with was something far more dark and mysterious than anything that spring from the pen of the Brothers Grimm. An Empress who lacks a shadow has three days in which to find one or her husband, the Emperor, will be turned to stone. 

With her Nurse, she descends to the world of humans in order to persuade the young wife of a poor tanner to forswear childbirth and, in so doing, sell them her shadow in exchange for worldly luxury and sensual pleasure. Though haunted by the voices of her unborn children, the tanner’s wife at first agrees, but the Empress is increasingly gripped by remorse for the husband…

Guth decks the stage in curved mahogany and peoples it with a supporting cast of animal-headed extras. It is as though the archetypes of Jung’s collective unconscious had broken free and invaded the doctor’s own study. As this image of a secessionist drawing room is at first invaded by the world of fairytales only to withdraw back into itself, we are inclined to treat the whole tale as the dream of a Freudian hysteric from the comfort of her psychiatrist’s couch.

With its vast, densely packed orchestra, conductor Semyon Bychkov had to carefully squeeze his way through to the podium at the start of each act (to increasingly rapturous applause on each occasion). With such resources available, the score produces a tremendous dynamic range and a whole swathe of novel timbral combinations, all deftly handled by the Soviet-born conductor (a former student of Ilya Musin). 

As melodic as Der Rosenkavalier, Die Frau ohne Schatten is also, in its own way, as modern as Elektra, and its hard to imagine such a work being composed by anyone who hadn’t previously written both. And if the richly textured orchestration bears its debt to Wagner, there are many more who are indebted in turn. Every scene threw out so many musical ideas, each one the seed of many a Hollywood film score. 

A flop on its first performance, Strauss and Hofmannstahl’s fifth collaboration was for a long time rarely performed for it places enormous demands – particularly on its three female leads. Emily Magee (as the Empress), in particular, sung superbly, handling the role’s many high notes and coloratura passages with seeming ease. At times, however, despite their different tessituras, it was difficult to distinguish one voice from the other. An opera singer’s voice is like an actor’s face, bearer of their emotion, their unique character and identifying signature, and from the upper amphitheatre it wasn’t always clear quite who was singing what. 

There was a tremendous lushness, a kind of aesthetic opulence to every aspect of this production, but it finally did little to reassure the confused voices in the crowd who worried over the plot as they hurried off for ice creams each interval. Still certain moments continue to haunt: the ghostly voices of the unborn children, the Empress’s snarled renunciation: I will not.