Friday, December 14, 2007

Die Oper ohne Plot

I went to see Richard Strauss's opera Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow) at Lyric Opera of Chicago two nights ago. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, but left with some big questions about the staging.

Opera staging is a tough sell these days, with the experimental often not going over well and the overly traditional seen as stagnant (yeah, Met, I'm talking to you, with those old Zeffirelli monster sets still hanging around). This opera started off more or less traditional and rather minimalist, with a bed and a basin standing in for the whole palace, a falcon (a singer) flown in in a cage that was lit up instead of trying to make it invisible -- all right, that's a little less traditional, but the home of the Dyer and Dyer's wife, poor mortals visited by the shadowless Empress and her nurse, was fairly literal: a door where a door should be, a fire pit where a fire should be.

Then the opera itself takes a weird turn, as spirits appear and a young man (a gold-sprayed male model) appears to tempt the Dyer's wife away from her duties as a wife. This apparently liberated Paul Curran, the director, in Act III, when Dadaist set pieces started to appear. I'm sure that there was some reason that the boat the Empress was riding in was an upside-down gigantic white umbrella: the perversion of things from their rightful use and the lack of symbolic protection, etc. I'm sure that there was also a reason that the Fountain of Life was represented by a gigantic plaster hand: grasping at what you shouldn't, etc. I could come up with interpretations all day.

But did it really add anything to to the opera? I'm not sure that it did. Seeing as Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto is largely an injunction to bear children, one can see why the production notes were really selling this as the Empress's journey of self-discovery. I think these weird moments were meant to enlarge the moral scope of the opera, but in the end, all they did was keep me intrigued for the wrong reasons.

Oh yes, the music. Very well done by the enormous orchestra and Sir Andrew Davis. This was also the first time I have heard Deborah Voigt live since she famously got her stomach stapled after (but not because!) Covent Garden did not hire her because she was too fat. Sure enough, she was climbing ladders in this production, just because she could. The sound has definitely changed, I think; it's brighter and sharper, with a little less of that extreme control that huge singers often have. So at least it's not a Callas story.

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