Friday, December 10, 2010

Shadow Play

Sam Shirakawa was in Duisburg for a performance of Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten on December 4th:

4 December 2010

Is it possible to love an opera without understanding it? Sure! Who can resist Il Trovatore? But Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten is a bit more renunciable, as opera managements have found to their dismay: all that effort to assemble five world-class principals, a gaggle of classy featured performers, a gigantic orchestra, and a conductor who can enliven the score, plus tons of scenery and a director who can make it all flow. And where's the audience?

Frau is so long, and so laden with arcana, that it has rarely been boffo at the box-office, even with big-name draws. Such was the case last Saturday, when the Deutsche Oper am Rhein brought about as fine a cast as is currently available to Duisburg for a new production of the work under Guy Joosten. Admittedly, the weather was hideous, but not inclement enough to warrant what looked like a half-empty house.

Too bad, because it was a superb performance. On the distaff side, Linda Watson, in hearty form following her hail of public protest against the director of the new Ring in Los Angeles, sang the Dyer's Wife with a big sound that never got too big for some lovely moments in the duet that begins the last act. She captured the frustrations and frailties of her character within the vast dynamic range she has accrued over the past decade. Susan Maclean as the Nurse threatened to upstage her fellow American with her flaming red get-up and shoulder-length black gloves, and she sang with yawning reserves of power and dramatic compulsion. Morenike Fadayomi is the among the most vocally secure Kaiserins I have heard live in a theater, but she lacks the requisite volume for the role at this stage of her young career. Nonetheless, she has an attractive stage personality and her voice possesses the sort of character that makes you eager to hear her Violetta, Daphne or Louise.

On the sword side, Tomasz Konieczny as Barak is a capital find -- a bass-baritone with a prodigious upper extension. While he appeared to be parsing himself out during the first two acts, his contributions to the third act duet and the final scene delivered far more than what was promised. He has Berry's charm, Brendel's warmth and his own brand of can belto. It was also a pleasure to find Roberto Saccà again, 19 years after I first heard him as David in Wiesbaden. In the time intervening, he has either cancelled or skipped town whenever I tried to attend one of his performances. As I suspected back then, he has become a king among Kaisers. James Bobby was effective in the thankless role of the Messenger.

Music Director Axel Kober is proving himself a masterful Strauss conductor, as he steered the excellent Duisburger Philharmonic, bequeathed him by his predecessor John Fiore, through the algorithmic intricacies of the score with seeming effortlessness. Joosten's production is mercifully free of gimmicks, though the singers stand too far upstage in the second act when the orchestra is going full tilt. In a relatively small house such as Duisburg's Staatstheater (1,118 seats), the singers in this opera, if they are to be heard, must be front-center, as they were in the final scene. Fortunately, Johannes Leiaker's sets are dominated by a steep, stage-wide staircase, whose steps project the voices out into the house. But the big moments in the second act take place in Barak's house, whose canvas walls devour the singing.

Some consider Frau Strauss' masterpiece. It is, by any accounting, a great work and may prove to be the last peak of the Himalayas that constituted the lyric theater of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. If the alarmingly sparse attendance of this opera is an indicator, it could well portend the end of opera as an ongoing practice in Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel may be an avid opera buff, but in reviewing the even deeper austerity cuts her government must make, she cannot overlook what many consider an expensive and wasteful luxury. If the citizens of Duisburg, as well as other German cities, don't want to support opera practice at its finest, as demonstrated by this production of Frau, maybe Germans want no more lyric theater. This cannot be waved off as a solely German problem. Singers and dancers in Germany also perform all over the world. Many of them, like Watson and Maclean, are American. If the scandalous rate of attrition among state-run theaters in Germany continues, the domino effect will spread world-wide. It may be happening already.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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