Shadow Play

For many opera fans, especially those of a certain age, everything truly great happened many years ago, never to be heard or seen again. Sometimes, though, that wisdom will be challenged, as it is right now by the Metropolitan Opera’s stunning new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten, Richard Strauss’s most ambitious and complex stage work. The Met’s previous Frau, its first, was unveiled in 1966 and turned out to be the surprise hit of the company’s inaugural season in its new home. The elaborate fantasy world concocted by poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal never looked more dazzling, and on the podium was Karl Böhm, the composer’s friend and colleague, to give the production its ultimate seal of authority. And the cast – Leonie Rysanek, Christa Ludwig, James King, and Walter Berry, a quartet that went on to perform the opera the world over – was magnificent.

Well, that was then, and when last seen nearly a dozen years ago, this legendary show was in tatters, literally a shadow of its former glory, and a new production with a fresh point of view was desperately needed. The Met has obliged, and much as I loved the old, the new is even better.

Perhaps the fairy-tale surface glitter of the former Frau was the best way to introduce this challenging work to Met audiences, but now that the opera is more familiar, it is time to dig deeper, and that is precisely what director Herbert Wernicke has done. Without sacrificing any scenic splendor, Wernicke – who also designed the sets, costumes, and lighting – explores many layers of this prismatic parable, and he has found much for us to ponder.

The fantastical world of the invisible god Keikobad and the shabby human home of Barak the Dyer are strikingly juxtaposed. The former is all glass and translucent panels, while the latter is a vast industrial basement that serves as both workshop and living quarters for Barak and his disgruntled wife. Keikobad’s barren daughter, the Empress – who moves through life without leaving a shadow – travels from one world to the other on a huge metal staircase in her quest for the Dyer’s wife’s shadow, a symbol of humanity and fertility.

Apparently, Wernicke also intended to suggest a social parable of New York City by contrasting the mysterious realm of richly dressed upper-class spirits with the drab working-class folk below, but the concept is never overstressed and his provocative, endlessly detailed settings are just as timeless as Hofmannsthal’s mythical South Sea island.

Nor are the characters and relationships ignored. I’ve never been quite so touched by the working out of the troubled interaction between Barak and his wife, played with nuance and commitment by, respectively, Wolfgang Brendel and Gabriele Schnaut, even when their voices occasionally veer off track. As the Empress, Deborah Voigt may not project the inner radiance that came so naturally to her most distinguished predecessors, but she sings tirelessly and truly, as does Thomas Moser as the Emperor who will turn to stone if his wife fails in her mission. The Met performs the score uncut for the first time, which means more work for Reinhild Runkel, a diabolical Nurse who pitches all the music of this fiendish role right on the notes.

Conductor Christian Thielemann is perhaps the real hero of the evening. Strauss’s bejeweled instrumentation could not be more exquisitely defined or blended, while the eloquence and sheer theatricality of the playing brought a sweep and expressive focus to the opera that even Böhm missed. How thrilling to finally hear this superb orchestra offer a musically searching interpretation of a great score – while producing a glorious sound, as well.

Die Frau ohne Schatten
New production of the opera by Richard Strauss, conducted by Christian Thielemann, staged and designed by Herbert Wernicke, at the Metropolitan Opera.

Photo by Beatriz Schiller

Shadow Play