Narrative Clarity and Sweeping Vocalism: Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Staatsoper Hamburg

Strauss – Die Frau ohne Schatten

Der Kaiser – Eric Cutler
Die Kaiserin – Emily Magee
Die Amme – Linda Watson
Der Geisterbote – Bogdan Baciu
Ein Hüter der Schwelle des Tempels/Die Stimme des Falken – Gabriele Rossmanith
Erscheinung des Jünglings – Kang Dongwon
Ein Stimme von oben – Marta Świderska
Barak – Wolfgang Koch
Sein Weib – Lise Lindstrom
Der Einäugige – Alexey Bogdanchikov
Der Bucklige – Jürgen Sacher
Stimmen der Wächter der Stadt – Alexey Bogdanchikov, Shin Yeo, Ang Du
Dienerinnen – Diana Tomsche, Luminita Andrei, Marta Świderska
Kinderstimmen – Lee Jinhee, Elżbieta Kość, Kathrin von der Chevallerie, Kristina Sušić, Kim Jungmin
Stimmen der Ungeborenen  – Ludmila Georgieva, Ilka Zwarg, Mercedes Seeboth, Susanne Bohl, Ute Kloosterziel, Veselina Teneva

Hamburger Alsterspatzen, Chor der Hamburgischen Staatsoper, Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg / Kent Nagano.
Stage director – Andreas Kriegenburg

Staatsoper, Hamburg, Germany.  Saturday, January 5th, 2019.

Tonight the Hamburg Staatsoper staged a revival of Andreas Kriegenburg’s 2017 staging of die Frau ohne Schatten.  This is a piece with a long tradition in the house on the Dammtor.  First performed here in 1921, the list of previous casts includes such luminaries as Marton, Kollo, Nilsson, Schnaut, Troyanos and many other leading singers.  For this revival, the house offered a mouth-watering cast of the leading Straussians of today, with the theatre’s music director, Kent Nagano, conducting.

© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg 2017

Kriegenburg gives us a staging that undoubtedly looks good.  The sets (Harald B Thor) are most imposing, clearly illustrating the world of the Kaiser and Kaiserin and the mortal world below.  Making full use of the theatre’s impressive technical facilities, the initial clean white lines of the world above disappear as the stage ascends, revealing the mortal world below and the home of Barak and his family.  A spiral staircase allows characters to ascend or descend as the work progresses.  The most notable aspect of Kriegenburg’s staging is the clarity of this storytelling.  He illustrates the libretto very closely, taking the work very much on the surface.  This clarity of storytelling is most definitely a strength, in a work that can sometimes be impenetrable.  He demonstrated the Kaiser’s imminent petrification most effectively, by having him wheeled on in a wheelchair as the evening developed.  Similarly, the body doubles for the Kaiserin and Barak’s Weib, allowed Kriegenburg to demonstrate that there was more that united them than separated them.  And yet, I longed for something deeper.  Something that questioned the work’s heteronormativity, for example, but also, one that interrogated this idea of an elite needing to take advantage of the struggling in order to survive.  Personenregie consisted of a fair bit of declaiming while staring into the middle distance, but the cast managed to create vital and living personalities through impeccable clarity of the text.  Again, Kriegenburg gave us a staging that most certainly looked great and offered an admirable narrative clarity, and these are certainly reasons to celebrate.

© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg 2017

Musically, it was a triumph for the house.  As was the case in last night’s Zauberflöte, the house band was on phenomenal form for Nagano, giving us extremely classy playing.  Nagano is known for his fine ear for texture and the ravishing transparency he found in this this orchestration was most impressive.  This was never to the detriment of allowing the work to proceed at a natural pace.  There was never any sense of sagging or loss of tension, simply that the transitions were carefully and organically moulded.  The radiance that he found in an orchestral sound that bloomed gloriously was absolutely wonderful, founded on sheer beauty of sound.  The ladies and gentlemen of the orchestra played like heroes for him.  There were a couple of ragged brass chords towards the end of a very long evening but otherwise, the quality of the playing was absolutely phenomenal, giving us a world of fascinating orchestral colour.  This was a triumph for them.

© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg 2017

Vocally, we also had a cast surely among the finest interpreters of these roles today.  This is a massively challenging assignment for the singers, requiring them to come right out and sing some of the most challenging music in the repertoire immediately.  Emily Magee took a little while to settle (which Kaiserin in the theatre doesn’t find that opening scene a nightmare?), the breath somewhat short.  She warmed up nicely though and by Act 3 was pouring out streams of pearly tone.  Indeed, she found a real warmth to ‘Vater, bist du’s’, matching the ravishing playing of the solo violin with limpid Straussian elegance.  I had a sense that the very top was a bit tight, lacking a little in resonance up there, but Magee gave so generously of herself that I was completely won over.  Eric Cutler gave us a glorious Kaiser.  Again, it sounded like it took a couple of moments for the voice to get into gear, but then it really did take wing, Cutler opening up and soaring over that fabulous orchestral sound with total ease, offering us ecstatic, full-throated singing.  In his Act 2 monologue he brought a lieder singer’s attention to the text, bringing a warm tenderness the tone that was ravishing, before the voice once again soared into the heights.  A notable new role for this excellent singer going from strength to strength in this repertoire.

© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg 2017

Wolfgang Koch brought so much humanity to the role of Barak.    There was a simple generosity to his portrayal that I found immensely affecting, amplified by Nagano’s tender phrasing from the pit.  His baritone was always utterly firm and even.  His imprecations of ‘fürchte dich nicht’ in Act 3 were unbearably moving.  Lise Lindstrom was on blistering form as the Weib.  The voice has cutting power to spare, penetrating the auditorium with laser-like ease.  She had clearly worked exceptionally hard on articulating the text even if, and this sounds almost churlish to mention given the excellence of her vocalism, her German sounded a bit Anglophone in flavour.  Lindstrom also brought out such sensitivity in her Act 3 ‘duet’ with Barak, exploiting a warmth and generosity of tone.  Linda Watson was a commanding Amme, negotiating the role’s challenging tessitura and angular writing with nonchalant ease.  Her fruity, almost tart, sound was absolutely massive on top, similarly filling the theatre in a wave of sound.  The remaining roles demonstrated the exceptional standards the house maintains – every single role sung with distinction.  The choruses had clearly been well-prepared, particularly the radiant children’s chorus.

© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg 2017

This was, once again, an evening the showed this house at its estimable best.  Musically, it was performed at the very highest level by a cast at the top of its game.  Kriegenburg’s staging was logical and looked absolutely fantastic, presenting what can be a daunting piece with admirable clarity.  To see opera of this quality on two consecutive evenings really is a rare privilege.  The house orchestra on glorious form, Nagano’s wonderfully transparent conducting, and singing of the very highest quality available.  A most impressive evening.

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