Youthful Renewal: Die Frau ohne Schatten from the Bayerische Staatsoper

Strauss – Die Frau ohne Schatten

Der Kaiser – Johan Botha
Die Kaiserin – Adrianne Pieczonka
Die Amme – Deborah Polaski
Der Geisterbote – Sebastian Holecek
Ein Hüter der Schwelle des Tempels – Hanna-Elisabeth Müller
Erscheinung des Jünglings – Dean Power
Die Stimme des Falken – Nakamura Eri
Ein Stimme von oben – Okka von der Damerau
Barak – Wolfgang Koch
Sein Weib – Elena Pankratova
Der Einäugige – Tim Kuypers
Der Bucklige – Matthew Peña
Stimmen der Wächter der Stadt – Andrea Borghini, Rafał Pawnuk, Leonard Bernad
Dienerinnen – Iulia Maria Dan, Laura Tătulescu, Okka von der Damerau
Kinderstimmen – Iulia Maria Dan, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, Nakamura Eri, Tara Erraught, Okka von der Damerau
Stimmen der Ungeborenen  – Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, Nakamura Eri, Laura Tătulescu, Tara Erraught, Heike Grötzinger, Okka von der Damerau

Kinderchor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Kirill Petrenko.
Stage director – Krzysztof Warlikowski.  Video Director – Andy Sommer

Bayerische Staatsoper, Nationaltheater, Munich, Germany.  November 2013.
Streamed via the Bayerische Staatsoper website.

As part of its continuing efforts to serve its loyal public, the Bayerische Staatsoper is offering this stream of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s 2013 production of Die Frau ohne Schatten, on its website until noon CEST on Saturday, April 25th.  For its initial run, the house assembled a cast of leading Straussians, including the late Johan Botha as the Kaiser, as well as house stalwarts in the supporting roles.  When one sees singers of the calibre of Laura Tătulescu, Tara Erraught and Okka von der Damerau in the Kinderstimme, alongside that fabulous orchestra, one can be guaranteed of a musically spectacular evening.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl 2017

As always, this performance wouldn’t have had half the impact that it did have, had it not been for Warlikowski’s staging.  I’ve been so lucky with this piece in the theatre – whether Guth’s staging at the London Royal Opera with an extremely fine cast, or Kriegenburg’s last year in Hamburg with a superlative line-up of singers.  Yet Warlikowski’s is the first staging that I’ve seen that transcends the work’s dated heteronormativity and instead finds a humanity within that is deeply moving.  The relationship between Wolfgang Koch’s Barak and Elena Pankratova as his wife is so vividly believable.  He, a man who works hard to keep food on the table, she a woman who desperately loves him, incapable of being unfaithful, yet with needs unmet.  The profound love between the two is utterly tangible and, the act of being separated and searching for each other in Act 3, results in a reunion that feels even more poignant than I’ve experienced before.  Similarly, the relationship between the Kaiser and Kaiserin is equally intense.  There’s a tenderness there, a longing in the separation and the desperation in the Kaiserin’s need to find a solution, as well as in her willingness to sacrifice all, that I found unbearable to watch.

Children are a constant presence on stage – whether dressed as animals, reinforcing the story’s supernatural elements – or as schoolchildren, suggesting that Barak and his wife are the school’s janitors while the Kaiser and Kaiserin could be school leaders.  The presence of the children gives the storytelling a freshness, making this interpretation more about the potential for renewal, the joyfulness of youth compared with the trials of adulthood.  In the closing ensemble, the troupe of children can be seen projecting their shadows on the wall at the back of the set (designed by Warlikowski’s long-term collaborator, Małgorzata Szczęśniak).  I found it an image full of hope, one that found that hope in a future of gathering together, a sense one desperately needs in these troubled times.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl 2017

Of course, experiencing a staging such as this on TV, rather than in the glorious acoustic of the Nationaltheater, can never be a replacement for the real thing.  Particularly as Warlikowski’s stagings always give us so much to look at and consider.  Filming a show such as this for the small screen will inevitably require some compromises.  Andy Sommer effectively caught the interactions between characters, although there were a number of moments where his direction cut away to show Kirill Petrenko in the pit rather than the action on stage, which I found distracting and unnecessary.  Similarly, in Act 3, there were several moments in which the image showed both the pit and the stage, depriving us of the opportunity to see Barak and his wife in close up – surely one of the benefits of a transmission such as this.  The sound, at least from my speakers, seemed a little compressed, lacking in depth.  Though, of course, we must be immensely grateful that the Staatsoper has made this available to us for free.

Musically, as can be expected, this was a performance of excellent quality.  I’ve had the privilege of seeing Botha’s Kaiser twice live and he was on fine form on the night this performance was filmed.  The voice soars magnificently, taking the tessitura in his stride, words filled with meaning.  He’s also a deeply affecting actor, the sheer sense of loss he finds in Act 2, or the joy of rediscovery in Act 3, both are portrayed with a tenderness and warmth, both dramatically and vocally.  Koch’s Barak was familiar from Hamburg last year.  His bass-baritone is utterly firm, able to carry across the huge band, but also capable of pulling the tone right back and investing it with an introspection that finds truth in the portrayal of his character.  His ‘fürchte dich nicht’ was sung with both strength and contemplation, with the goodness of his character portrayed through vocalism that was always solid and evenly produced.

The ladies were not quite at the same level.  Of course, the Kaiserin’s opening scene is treacherous, and it did sound like Adrianne Pieczonka needed to do a fair bit of heavy lifting to get up to the initial heights.  I left with an impression that the role as a whole sits a little high for her, the tone spreading in the upper reaches, but the middle was always warm and resonant.  Pieczonka did sing with generosity and found in Act 3 a strength that made the Kaiserin’s journey even more palpable.  Pankratova sang her music with vibrant tone, though not always sitting quite on the note.  Her diction was also not quite as clear as her castmates (for legal reasons the Staatsoper can only offer French subtitles with this streaming).  That said, she is an extremely vivid actress and her dramatic portrayal completely encapsulated her character’s journey.  She also rose to her music, pouring out ringing tone on high, rising over the band.  Deborah Polaski was 63 when this performance took place and it would wrong to say that the passage of time was not perceptible in her performance of the Amme.  The top is now rather threadbare but the bottom was there, if perhaps without the organ-like lower notes of other interpreters.  The voice also seems to lack a variety of vocal colours.  Where her performance does convince is in the clarity of her diction.

The extensive supporting cast was of the exceptional quality one would expect at this address.  The various ensembles sang with good blend and accuracy of tuning, especially the well-trained children’s chorus.  Petrenko drew out so much of the score’s technicolour beauty, digging deep to pull out such a variety of tone colours from the band.  The strings showed themselves capable of finding a gossamer lightness as well as a deep-pile carpet of sound.  The brass was on thrilling form.  Of course, from a recording, it’s hard to gauge how the balance worked in the house, but there’s a sense that Petrenko always allowed the voices through.  His tempi worked well, for the most part, a few passages saw the tension drop, but these were fleeting.  The tenderness in the orchestral phrasing, the soaring lyricism of the writing, and the threatening presence of the Keikobad motif – all combined to an organic whole.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl 2017

This is, without doubt, a very special Frau.  Extremely well sung, and in some places even more than that, superbly played and intelligently conducted.  What makes it special, though, is the fact that these elements are combined with a deeply insightful and psychologically astute staging, one that magnifies the music, and draws out the humanity in the relationships between the characters, in a way that no other staging I have seen of this work has managed to do.  Lovers of Strauss and great music theatre will want to see it.  Though for now, all I wish is that the house will revive it for an upcoming season.

During this period of theatre closures, earnings from both the Patreon community and paypal will be donated to musical and environmental charities.

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