Thursday, 22 March 2012

Frau ohne Ahnung

Wiener Staatsoper, 20/03/2012
Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten

Robert Dean Smith | The Emperor
Adrianne Pieczonka | The Empress
Birgit Remmert | The Nurse
Wolfgang Koch | Barak, the Dyer
Evelyn Herlitzius | The Dyer’s Wife
Wolfgang Bankl | Spirit Messenger
Chen Reiss | Guardian of the Threshold, Voice of the Falcon
Norbert Ernst | Apparition of a Youth
Zoryana Kushpler | Voice from Above
Adam Plachetka | The One-Eyed Man
Alexandru Moisiuc | The One-Armed Man
Herwig Pecoraro | The Hunchback
Zoryana Kushpler, Ileana Tonca, Caroline Wenborne, Stephanie Houtzeel, Nadia Krasteva, Monika Bohinec | Servants, Voices of the Unborn
Dan Paul Dumitrescu, Marcus Pelz, Clemens Unterreiner | Voices of the Nightwatchmen

Franz Welser-Möst | Conductor
Robert Carsen | Director

For once the Wiener Staatsoper has an unimpeachable excuse for corner-cutting a major revival, but the lack of a Generalprobe doesn’t explain away all the tech and other staging problems which plagued this performance. Par for the Staatsoper course, some might say, that Adrianne Pieczonka should stand shrouded in darkness and yet still cast a hulking great shadow on the wall (blocking markers, who needs those?), but this was just one of the less perverse problems. There were some signs of life to Robert Carsen’s Personenregie, but nothing that couldn’t have done with further resuscitative poking. Despite some very good playing in parts, the same goes for the score under the direction of Franz Welser-Möst.

Carsen’s Konzept is elegant and in its own way otherworldly even though his operative mode is Freudian overload. A white-coated psychiatric nurse is sent, clipboard in hand, from the clinic of Keikobad to monitor a bed-ridden Kaiserin in her well-appointed apartment. A scrim separates the bedroom from its mirror image, which is the Dyer’s abode as imagined in the Kaiserin’s dream world (the Kaiser also appears in her dreams, at least at first, so one thing this Empress is not lacking is a fertile imagination). There’s a neat bit of stagecraft as the Kaiserin rises from her bed, her moves mirrored in dreamland by a identically-clad Dyer’s wife, meaning that all the Wife’s fears, frustrations and flare-ups are the Kaiserin’s psychological projections, which works well until the middle of Act II without shorting us a character or treating her as a cipher. Carsen drops the idea rather abruptly because he has bigger Freudian fish to fry, namely that the trauma at the root of the Kaiserin’s hallucinations is that as a child she was abused by the father and witnessed him expire from an oddly tranquil coronary (seen in a film in Act II Scene 4). In the final scene the mirrored room is brought forwards and she confronts what appears now as the paternal bed and locus of her repressed emotional damage.

Evelyn Herlitzius & Adrianne Pieczonka
Though theatrically credible, these ideas don’t withstand much unpicking. The psychological projection may emerge from repression but with the Kaiserin onstage and following the action throughout Acts I and II there’s the sense that she has initiated her own journey of self-discovery. And yet just as she is coming to terms with her powerlessness and ineffective coping, Carsens Act II scene 4 volte-face reduces her to a delirious wreck in the throes of full-on denial. (Carsen recycled the vertical bed and revelatory dream in his recent TadW Turn of the Screw and it didn’t really work there either). Muddying matters further is the on-and-off deference to the text which hijacks the Konzept for long stretches of Act II, the scenes in Keikobad’s realm, and the very end – which surely should be all about the cured Kaiserin but gets overshadowed, for want of a better word, by the chorus speed dating and shacking up faster than you can say Kinder, Küche, Kirche. 

Wolfgang Koch in Act II Scene 5
Wilhelm Sinkovicz wrote a  pin-headed commentary about how the Staatsoper should be staging this opera in toe-curling fantasy fashion, like it’s Narnia or something, but remarked along the way – and not unreasonably – that a Freudian deconstruction can’t begin and end with the director showing us that he read The Interpretation of Dreams in college and found it kinda neat. Everything looks beautiful and if this weren’t the Wiener Staatsoper the flair of Carsen’s Personenregie would show more consistently, but his ideas lack rigour and the way he kept backing down in the face of the text showed a Konzept-killing lack of conviction.

The Philharmoniker – with FWM, always Philharmoniker – played well, never overpowered the singing, and had a few outstanding moments, particularly Franz Bartolomey’s poignant cello solo. Rainer Küchl (old school concertmaster, already whinged about here) did his usual thing of putting the C sharp into C major, but apart from his solo and the very end wasn’t too distracting. All this strong collective effort needed for it to cohere as Strauss was clear ideas and colour, which Welser-Möst didn’t provide with any degree of consistency. There were problems of clarity and balance too, with the entire orchestra making their crescendos all at once; at first possible to overlook and then happening too frequently not to. The big climaxes were ploughed through with no thought for phrasing, and elsewhere Welser-Möst pushed the singers too hard.

Adrianne Pieczonka sounded fairly robust but also showed that she has the necessary warmth and lyric beauty for this role, as well as the ability to make Strauss’s floaty phrases sound exquisite, fragile and noble all at once. The coloratura… well, she tried, and the moment passes quickly enough at the best of times. More worrying was the scooping which crept in at moments, though she had it under control in time for her big scene. Evelyn Herlitzius was doing her own thing acting-wise but that it looked like weeks of painstakingly rehearsed Personenregie and not just some crazy lady storming the stage deserves much credit. Singing was loud but never screechy, and in Act III she softened towards Barak very convincingly. Birgit Remmert’s Nurse was a bit hooty but she offered some good chest notes. Robert Dean Smith and Wolfgang Koch were sturdy, with Smith managing well to stay on course despite bearing the brunt of W-M’s blindsiding. Taken as a whole, it’s really not a cast to complain about and as much as Welser-Möst impairs what’s going on in the pit, the playing is also worth hearing. So go if you have the chance, it’s a 6 out of 10 effort for an opera that isn’t easy to pull off, and considering the Staatsoper probably threw it all together in a week that’s a small miracle. Two performances remain: tomorrow and Tuesday.

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