Summary for the Busy Executive: Despite cast problems, I suspect it may turn out a classic.
Okay, I might as well admit up front that I'm not an opera type. I don't follow the singers' careers. I can't tell you all the times Tebaldi sang La Bohème or how much better Callas sang in the Teatro Colon than at the Met. I might leave the house to see slightly under a dozen operas, almost none of them in standard repertoire. I regard opera, at least in the United States, more as a vocal roller derby than as, ideally, drama. Most big-name opera singers don't sing all that well compared to most big-name Lieder singers, even though the opera artistes can make your ears ring or sail on the high Cs. Very few divas of either sex even can sing Lieder convincingly, while only the size of the airplane hangars in which most "first-rank" companies choose to stage their pageants limits the Lieder singer. Still, despite experience and common sense, opera continues to attract major composers and poets – certainly no greater pair than Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.
I also admit that, in music, I'm a hedonist. I mainly like the pleasure it gives me, not its power to make me a better person (highly doubtful, anyway, in my case). For this, Strauss simply gives me a lot of bang for my listening buck. Thinking of Strauss's music, especially his operas and especially Die Frau ohne Schatten (the woman without shadows), puts my salivary glands into the kind of overdrive they usually rev into at a great New Orleans Italian-Creole restaurant. The opera began as the follow-up to that great success of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal collaboration, Der Rosenkavalier. However, despite Hofmannsthal's initial rush of enthusiasm for the project, it took him almost six years to come up with the libretto, and he resisted Strauss's proddings to hurry up. Certainly it counts as one of their most ambitious products, both musically and poetically. Yet it had a relatively hard row to hoe.
Hofmannsthal stuffed the plot full of parable and symbol, so much so that he spent most of his time trying to figure out exactly what he had. In fact, he worked simultaneously on a prose version – an Erzählung – to help him clarify the implications of plot and image. He published this as well. Strauss himself had troubles deciding what Hofmannsthal was getting at, and, from the correspondence, often the poet couldn't tell him.
And these are the creators. Imagine the problems of audience and critics. In his standard three-volume study of Strauss, the conductor Norman Del Mar states his opinion that the work should never be presented without Hofmannsthal's prose explanation. In fact, he considers the opera ultimately a failure. On the other hand, Ernest Newman considered the work the finest opera since Die Meistersinger, which means he preferred it to Rosenkavalier. Even so, Newman admitted rough going with the meaning of it all. The work seems to have garnered very few performances until the production for Birgit Nilsson in the Sixties, a period which after all (if we consider early Bob Dylan) had an affinity for high-falutin' symbolism. I take the attitude "don' worry about it." Grand opera – even Wagnerian grand opera – deals in large, as opposed to detailed, meanings. The story itself is mostly clear, and that's what matters.
In large outline, Hofmannsthal tells a story of temptation, with large chunks of Zauberflöte thrown in. The Emperor and the Empress are madly hot for each other, but childless. In the symbols of the play, the Empress, the daughter of the spirit king and now caught between the spirit kingdom and the human realm, has no shadow; that is, she can't bear children. The relation between husband and wife is completely sexual. The Emperor makes love to his wife every night, but in the morning leaves her to go hunting all day. He also is jealously possessive of her. The spirit king puts a curse on the Emperor: if the Empress does not acquire a shadow, the Emperor will be turned to stone in three days. The Nurse (a sinister, Mephistophelian figure who has followed the Empress from the world of demons) tells her that she will have to take a shadow from some mortal.
Disguised as servants, the Nurse and the Empress enter the home of Barak the dyer. Barak - kind, patient, and long-suffering – has married a beautiful shrew. This couple is childless as well. The Nurse entices Barak's thoughtless young wife – mainly by harping on the girl's throwing her beauty away on a lout like Barak – into forfeiting her shadow (and her unborn children) in exchange for tchotchkes and boys on the side. The exchange will be fulfilled in three days.
The opera's second act concerns the purification trials of the two couples. Barak's wife is tempted with a phantom in the shape of a beautiful boy. Although she keeps saying how much she despises her husband, she can't bring herself to betray him. For his part, Barak becomes weighed down by an increasing sense of threat and fancies he hears the cries of his unborn children. In the meantime, the Empress dreams of her husband slowly turning into stone and realizes that she indeed loves him. However, her contact with Barak has begun to "humanize" her. She has misgivings about robbing Barak and his wife of something so precious.
During the course of the act, Barak's wife defiantly reveals her bargain to her husband. In the firelight, she no longer throws a shadow. Barak's patience dissolves, and a sword magically appears in his hand. He raises it against his wife, who throws herself at his feet and begs forgiveness. The sword disappears. At this point, the earth opens up and swallows Barak and Mrs. Barak. The river overflows its banks into the house, and the Empress and the Nurse leave on a magic boat.
The scene changes to some realm beneath the earth. Barak and his wife lay imprisoned in separate cells, unknown to each other. Each calls out to the other. They manage to leave the cells but, maliciously misdirected by the Nurse and still calling, wander off in different directions. Meanwhile, the Empress comes to trial before an unseen judge, the Emperor as it turns out, now almost completely petrified. Even his heart has turned to stone. In his eyes, however, she reads his plea to save him. The Emperor is forced to regard her as more than a possession and indeed counts on her love. With the silent plea, he recognizes that he wants to love her – that is, he wants his heart back. The Empress is told that if she drinks from the water of life, she will possess the shadow of Barak's wife once and for all and free the Emperor from the curse. This is her temptation. In a wonderful dramatic moment, she softly replies, "I will not." Despite her great love, she can't harm the Baraks. With this act of renunciation, the Emperor becomes free, and the Empress gains her own shadow. She is now fully human. The trial turns out to have been Solomonic.
Many feminists go ape over the story because they probably take the message as "women become fulfilled only by children." In fact, I've read well-meaning attempts to excuse Hofmannsthal and Strauss as products of their time. I think it a serious misreading. First, the opera takes place in a fairy-tale world. In this world, only couples who love each other fully can have children. The children represent that love and, in their role as posterity, the triumph over death. Second, the hero of the opera is, after all, the Empress, on whom the fate of everyone hinges. If we consider the immensity of those fates and the nobility of the Empress in the face of, we think, a Catch-22, her act must be one of the bravest in opera.
The music sings gloriously. Strauss adopts a leitmotiv structure as complex as anything in Wagner outside the Ring and creates an orchestra of many colors and great flexibility. Strauss, as he grew older, leaned toward the clearer, more chamber-like textures of Capriccio and the oboe concerto, as opposed to the massiveness of the tone poems. I'm convinced that the necessity of clarifying Hofmannsthal's texts so listeners could at least hear them over the instruments helped to move him in that direction. Furthermore, Hofmannsthal, a great lyric and dramatic poet, had the sheer good luck of finding a composer as fine a musical dramatist as Strauss (even though he thought Strauss's taste dreadful and regularly told him in so many words he considered him his artistic inferior). This opera has more than its share of gorgeous tunes, but it's all to dramatic effect, unlike – say – "The Song of the Indian Merchant" from Rimsky's Sadko, simply a lovely tune which advances neither plot nor character. As you can probably tell from even my bare recital of both the story and the symbolic argument, this isn't the easiest libretto to set. Yet Strauss manages to create an opera which wrings every dramatic drop from the text.
If Elektra represents Strauss at his most harmonically "advanced" (indeed, close to no tonal center at all), Die Frau lags only a little behind. What strikes the listener immediately - and I mean from the very first measures of the opera – is the genius of Strauss as one of the greatest orchestrators ever, the creator not only of daring, powerful, and beautiful new sounds, but of sounds dramatically right. Stark chords hammer out the cruel world of fairy tales, of Munch and Klimt, as well as of Puccini's Turandot. The Emperor's falcon gets some marvelous bird-music. Some charge Strauss with having solely a pictorial imagination, and certainly one can't deny the visual inspiration of much of his music. For example, one can practically see the falcon hovering and wheeling about, just by what one hears. But in almost every Strauss work, one finds a transcendental, mystical layer, as well as great psychological probing in the operas. Despite his own quite misleading statements, he ends up no more a musical realist than Mahler. The brutish, mechanical world of Barak's house (represented dramatically by Barak's three brothers – One-eye, One-arm, and Hunchback) comes to lumpish life with music which reminds us that Stravinsky's Le Sacre wasn't all that long before, even as the passage obviously lies around the corner from Wagner's Nibelheim. The self-pity and the genuine love that stand side by side in Barak's wife find their counterpart in the love-music she sings to the harsh words she hurls at her husband. The work has both drama and breathtaking beauty. The chorus of the unborn children speaking through fish frying in the pan (don't ask) sings to appropriately finny, shimmering music. The finale of the first act as the Watchmen raise a hymn in praise of loving couples may owe something of its origin to Wagner, but Wagner never managed to sound sensual and spiritual at the same time.
Strauss makes such demands on his singers that few can make it through this score. That said, the recording suffers from most of its cast. The Emperor is a Heldentenor. Domingo's voice (the recording comes from 1989-91) sounds alternately dull and bleating, rather than ringing and heroic. Fortunately, he hasn't all that much to do. Varady suffers pitch problems. These also afflict to some extent Behrens as the Dyer's Wife. Runkel, the Nurse, can't get rid of the Great Opera Alto Wobble, although her voice certainly has the heft for the part. As Barak, van Dam – also past his prime – easily takes top honors. A slight huskiness brushes the voice, dramatically appropriate to the character, but van Dam remains master of the role – one of the few Baraks who comes across as the best of humanity, rather than a sanctimonious drip. He and Varady also have hands down the best diction of the lot. You can actually understand them without recourse to the libretto. The others sing with hot potatoes in their mouths. Despite all this, however, and excepting Domingo, the major parts can all act with their voices. The appropriate dramatic qualities continually appear at the fore.
Solti and the Vienna nevertheless give us most of the thrills and the drive. I've always thought Solti at his best in Wagnerian and post-Wagnerian opera. His Ring I consider one of the great recordings of the century, although you should remember that I don't know very many recordings before 1950. His Frau stands pretty much in the same class. He not only clarifies Strauss's at-times fussy texture, but he never forgets that opera is drama and action. The music constantly moves forward. The Vienna Philharmonic players give one of their finest performances – gorgeous, rich tone, transparent ensemble, and a rhythmic sharpness I don't normally associate with them. In all, a vast improvement over the only other recording I know - Sawallisch and the Bavarian State Opera.
London's recording team has come up with a sound worthy of comparison to the glory days of Culshaw. In short, a winner.
Copyright © 2000, Steve Schwartz