28 April 2013

CD REVIEW: Richard Strauss—DIE SCHWEIGSAME FRAU (F. Hawlata, J. Bauer, B. Berchtold, G. Yang; cpo 777 757-2)

Richard Strauss: DIE SCHWEIGSAME FRAU [cpo 777 757-2]

RICHARD STRAUSS (1864 – 1949): Die schweigsame Frau—F. Hawlata (Sir Morosus), J. Bauer (Aminta), B. Berchtold (Henry Morosus), G. Yang (Isotta), T. Penttinen (Carlotta), M. Winter (Carlo Morbio), M. Straube (Theodosia Zimmerlein), K. Räsänen (Cesare Vanuzzi), M. Gäbler (Giuseppe Farfallo); Chor der Oper Chemnitz, Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie; Frank Beermann [Recorded in conjunction with performances by Oper Chemnitz, Opernhaus (Die Theater Chemnitz), Chemnitz, Germany, 7 – 12 May 2012; cpo 777 757-2]

Like their human counterparts, many musical families have their black sheep, siblings and cousins who make cursory appearances at family reunions—or, in musical clans, festivals—but otherwise remain out of sight, safely beyond the scrutiny of unfamiliar eyes.  If there is an overlooked offspring among the operas of Richard Strauss, it is his ‘silent woman,’ Die schweigsame Frau.  With the operas of Strauss in general holding such prominent places in the repertories of the world’s opera houses, not to mention in the affections of opera lovers, questions inevitably arise about the quality of Die schweigsame Frau: why is this ‘silent woman’ a lesser sister, less worthy to trod the boards and dwell in hearts than Arabella, Ariadne, and the Marschallin; or even Elektra and Salome?  What is she that her plight so little engages those whose sensibilities embrace Der Rosenkavalier and the notoriously challenging Die Frau ohne Schatten?

If it is true that necessity is the mother of all invention, it might be said that Die schweigsame Frau has a Jewish mother: the death of Hugo von Hofmannsthal in 1929 necessitated a search for new librettists for Strauss’s future projects, and the composer’s choice for the project that would become Die schweigsame Frau—premiered at Dresden’s Semperoper in 1935, allegedly with the personal approval of Adolf Hitler—was Stefan Zweig, an Austrian-born Jewish writer who was at the time of his initial collaboration with Strauss at the height of his literary abilities and fame.  The extent of Strauss’s personal identification with the Nazi party is difficult to ascertain, but his selection as President of Joseph Goebbels’s Reichsmusikkammer reflects the high esteem in which he was held by Hitler, Goebbels, and the Nazi cultural establishment.  Strauss’s choice of Zweig as librettist for Die schweigsame Frau inevitably led to a row with Nazi authorities: though, as noted, Hitler himself authorized the premiere of the opera to go ahead as planned, Goebbels’s patronage was withdrawn, resulting in the Gestapo intervening to suppress the opera after only two or three performances [sources vary on this point, and most reliable primary-source evidence was likely lost to World War II] and in Strauss’s eventual resignation from his Reichsmusikkammer Presidency.  The first performance of the opera was conducted by Strauss’s friend and champion Karl Böhm, and the lead rôles of Sir Morosus and Aminta were sung by Friedrich Plaschke and Maria Cebotari.  Documentation of critical and audience reception of the premiere is scant, discussion of the opera in the contemporary press presumably also prevented by the Gestapo, and nearly a quarter-century would pass before productions of Die schweigsame Frau at the New York City Opera (where the performances were sung in English translation) and the Salzburger Festspiele renewed interest in the opera.  Despite the participation of many expert Straussians and excellent singers in productions of the opera, Die schweigsame Frau remains a ‘black sheep’ in the Strauss family, still never having been heard at the Metropolitan Opera.

Though its power to win audiences’ plaudits and convince impresarios of the stage-worthiness of Die schweigsame Frau may be understandably limited, the effect of this new recording from cpo in exposing listeners to the high quality of Strauss’s score should prove profound.  Whereas the discography is brimming with recordings of Elektra, Salome, and Der Rosenkavalier, only a handful of recordings of Die schweigsame Frau exist, all but two of them ‘live’ or pirated affairs in variable sound.  In their series of recordings from Opernhaus Chemnitz, cpo have shown a dedication to the music of Richard Strauss, their previous recording of Die Liebe der Danae having likewise entered a recorded field that was far from crowded.  Since inception, a notable hallmark of cpo recordings has been sonic excellence, and even when recording under circumstances of live, staged performances, cpo’s engineers reliably provide superb balances.  [The present recording was made in conjunction with staged performances but was recorded in the opera house under studio conditions.  It is also an ‘abridged’ performance in the sense that it employs the Dresden version of the score prepared—cut, that is—for the Semperoper premiere, with the choral scene—‘Ist es möglich’—restored in Act II.]  This is emphatically true of this recording of Der schweigsame Frau, a score that benefits greatly from sufficient sonic space in which both orchestra and voices can expand without threatening shrillness or overloading.  Like most of Strauss’s operas, Der schweigsame Frau provides challenges to engineers with its extremes of pitches, Sir Morosus descending to the lowest depths of the bass range and Aminta soaring into the coloratura stratosphere.  cpo’s microphones capture every tone cleanly and accurately, maintaining brightness on high and rotundity on low, as well as producing a careful but natural balance between orchestra pit and stage.  The cleverness and humor of Strauss’s orchestration is abundantly apparent, highlighted by a spirited account of the score by the Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie.  Choral contributions by the Oper Chemnitz Chorus are similarly animated and unfailingly enjoyable.  The performance is conducted with no little wit by Oper Chemnitz’s General Music Director, Frank Beermann.

The plot of Die schweigsame Frau was taken from Ben Jonson’s play Epicœne, or the Silent Woman, a comedy of errors concerning the romantic aspirations of an aging man with an aversion to noise but plenty of cash and the ambitions of a shrewish young woman—actually a young man—incapable of any volume softer than forte.  Though unsuccessful at its premiere in 1609, Jonson’s play was ripe for operatic treatment: in addition to serving as the basis for Zweig’s libretto for Die schweigsame Frau, sans the gender-bending subplot, the basic framework of the play shaped the libretti of Salieri’s Angiolina, Pavesi’s Ser Marcantonio (recorded by NAXOS at the 2011 Rossini in Wildbad Festival and scheduled for release on CD this month), and—most notably—Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.  Strauss and Zweig described Die schweigsame Frau as a ‘Komische Oper’ (more in the sense of French opéra comique with spoken dialogue than in the Italian tradition of opera buffa), but as in Don Pasquale and, in the Strauss canon, Der Rosenkavalier, there are numerous moments of serious, dangerous emotion.  In Zweig’s libretto, Aminta—the ‘silent’ woman of the title—is a not-quite-willing participant in the mock marriage plotted by her actual husband, Henry, to trick his obstinate—and, seemingly, opera-loathing—uncle, Sir Morosus.  Musically, Die schweigsame Frau does not find its composer at the absolute zenith of his abilities, but there are many pages of the score that are vintage Strauss, offering a talented cast numerous opportunities for pointed singing and characterization.

As in many of his operas, Strauss populated Die schweigsame Frau with an array of secondary characters that require first-rate voices.  When Henry, Sir Morosus’s nephew, returns to London to visit his uncle, he arrives with a troupe of Italian opera singers and even a full chorus in tow.  Isotta, the troupe’s seconda donna, is sung by soprano Guibee Yang, who sails through her high-flying music with charm and brightly forward tone, especially in her irony-laden description of the particular qualities that she might offer as Morosus’s wife, ‘Ich würde lachen.’  Carlotta, sung by mezzo-soprano Tiina Penttinen, also offers an explication of her potential marital ‘duties’ in ‘Ich würde singen,’ which Ms. Penttinen sings with saucy good humor.  Baritone Matthias Winter portrays Carlo Morbio winningly, singing strongly and audibly relishing his comedic opportunities when impersonating the Notary.  Basses Kouta Räsänen and Martin Gäbler as Cesare Vanuzzi and Giuseppe Farfallo also create delightful vignettes, rolling sonorously through their ‘disguised’ assignments as the Priest and a Sailor.  Also contributing engagingly to the fun in Act I as the chorus of Henry’s merry band of singers are tenors Gyung-Ha Choi, Mu-Gon Kim, and Harald Meyer and basses Jann Schröder, Petar Spiridonov, and Lukasz Wieloch.  No opera of substance set in 18th-Century Britain would be complete without pastiche music for harpsichord (adapted by Strauss from pieces from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book), and the thoroughly capable maestro di cembalo in this performance is Jeffrey Goldberg.

Theodosia Zimmerlein, Sir Morosus’s ‘Haushälterin’ or housekeeper, is a strange composite of Berta in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia and the Amme in Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten.  Like Berta, Sir Morosus’s housekeeper has designs on becoming mistress of her master’s house and is not above engaging in a bit of scheming in pursuit of her goals.  Fräulein Zimmerlein’s efforts at orchestrating the goings-on in her employer’s household have more than a kernel of self-preservation at their heart, however, and in this respect she proves a distant cousin of the enigmatic Amme.  Sung in this performance by alto Monika Straube, Fräulein Haushälterin bustles through the opera with slyness and barely-contained frustration, conveyed fantastically by Ms. Straube.  Strauss makes cruel demands of the singers of his alto rôles, subjecting them to tessitura that ranges from contralto depths to dramatic soprano heights.  Few singers could be completely comfortable under such musical conditions, but Ms. Straube sings excellently, maintaining an evenness of tone even at the extremes of her range.  Taking cues from the text, which she delivers with superb diction, Ms. Straube leaves no dramatic stone unturned and is a genuine presence in every scene in which she sings.

If the Housekeeper is Strauss’s Berta, Pankrazius Schneidebart—the surname translates as Cutbeard, the name of the barber in Jonson’s play—is his Figaro.  Schneidebart’s closest musical relative is perhaps the Music Master in Ariadne auf Naxos, whose deteriorating command of his situation resembles the way in which Schneidebart’s masterminding of the plotting in Die schweigsame Frau threatens to careen out of control.  Musically, Schneidebart is a vintage Strauss baritone rôle, and the security and sheer enjoyment with which Andreas Kindschuh sings the part is heartening.  Like Figaro in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Schneidebart is a practiced master of playing to all sides of a conundrum, in turns cajoling Sir Morosus, comforting and abetting Henry, enacting his part in the sham marriage, and all the while pursuing his own agenda.  The charming little canzona in which Schneidebart encourages Sir Morosus—a man of a certain age—to seek an ideally ‘silent’ young bride, ‘Mädchen nur, die nichts erfahren,’ receives from Mr. Kindschuh a performance of mock formality and wickedly funny irony.  Throughout the opera, Schneidebart proves a most resourceful factotum, and Mr. Kindschuh proves a thoroughly entertaining Schneidebart.

Hearing the tessitura that poor Henry faces in Die schweigsame Frau reminds the listener of the oft-repeated accusation that Strauss was an unrelenting enemy of the tenor voice.  It would be a fairer charge to state merely that Strauss preferred for his tenors—whether on the heroic form of the Kaiser in Die Frau ohne Schatten and Menelaus in Die ägyptische Helena or in the lyric vein of Narraboth in Salome and Flamand in Capriccio—to dwell in the upper octaves of their registers.  Henry is more extensive than many of Strauss’s tenor rôles, a true test of the stamina of the singer.  Tenor Bernhard Berchtold, a singer whose Chemnitz repertory includes rôles as diverse as Lord Artur in Nicolai’s Die Heimkehr des Verbannten and Vasco da Gama in the original version of Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, copes manfully with the punishing tessitura of Henry’s music, with all but the highest notes ringing out impressively.  Slight strain and shortness of pitch at the extreme top of Mr. Berchtold’s range do not detract from his very fine performance, which is shaped by an intelligent use of the text.  The tenderness with which Mr. Berchtold sings in Henry’s private exchanges with Aminta is very touching, and he is unfailingly believable as the devoted but exasperated nephew.  Henry’s music lacks the melodic distinction of the poetic outpourings of Flamand and the aria for the Italian Tenor in Der Rosenkavalier but matches both of these rôles in the ardor of his utterances.  Mr. Berchtold perfectly captures this ardor in his heated singing, which ultimately encompasses both the passion and the pathos of Henry’s circumstances.

Aminta inhabits a musical environment strewn with rippling coloratura and frequent excursions above top C, closely resembling the musical profile of Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos.  When sung with warmth, emotional depth, and attention to the twists and turns of her involvement with Henry’s plan to regain his uncle’s favor, Aminta can unexpectedly prove to be one of Strauss’s most moving heroines.  Not unlike Norina’s immediate flood of regret when she slaps Don Pasquale in Donizetti’s opera, Strauss’s Aminta is a reluctant actress in her husband’s domestic drama from the start.  Sir Morosus’s grumpy sincerity awakens pity in Aminta even before she has begun to play her part, and when she finally erupts as the noisy harpy she has been engaged to portray, she does so only after having repeatedly complained to Henry of the injustice of their scheme and fortified her own resolve.  Of course, compassion is at the heart of all of Strauss’s most effective heroines: the Marschallin’s relinquishment of Octavian when she observes the burgeoning love between him and Sophie, the flighty Zerbinetta’s genuine pity for Ariadne’s sorrow, Arabella’s understanding of the boorish Mandryka, Maria’s unyielding love for her recalcitrant husband in Friedenstag.  Set amid such frothy surroundings, it is surprising that Aminta reaches such heights of emotional eloquence, but the performance on this recording by Julia Bauer aspires to profundity even in the broadest comedy.  Seemingly untroubled by the extensive range of her part, tossing off brilliant high notes with ease, Ms. Bauer sings with the unwavering grace of an expert Straussian.  Her joy when singing in duet with Henry is palpable, and the regret that she displays in her vituperous dealings with Sir Morosus reaches the heart.  That Ms. Bauer achieves so much dramatically is remarkable, considering that she also offers a near-flawless performance of a formidably difficult part.  Ms. Bauer also never allows the listener to forget that Aminta is an Italian opera singer, and opportunities for vocal display are seized with abandon and unfailingly exhilarating results.  Such musically and dramatically complete performances of Strauss rôles are sadly rare, so Ms. Bauer’s performance is a special gift to lovers of Strauss’s operas.

The rôle of Sir Morosus, about whom the complicated drama of Die schweigsame Frau revolves, is entrusted to the cast’s one internationally-recognized singer, bass Franz Hawlata.  A practiced Straussian, Mr. Hawlata débuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 1995 as Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier, a part in which he is also featured in the DECCA CD and DVD recordings of the acclaimed Baden-Baden production conducted by Christian Thielemann and preserving Renée Fleming’s poised Marschallin.  Mr. Hawlata also sang Morosus in a celebrated 2010 production of Die schweigsame Frau at the Bayerischen Staatsoper, opposite the Aminta of Diana Damrau and Henry of Toby Spence.  Mr. Hawlata possesses a voice of near-ideal proportions for Sir Morosus’s music, and the mastery of the rôle that he displays in this recording is wonderful.  Though he is a retired admiral of the Royal Navy—conjuring stiff upper lips and the like—and a professed curmudgeon with an intolerance for noise owing to an explosion on his flagship, Sir Morosus’s musical personality does not preclude the exercising of an understated sense of humor, and Mr. Hawlata’s singing conveys an air of fun even in Sir Morosus’s most grumbling growls in his lower register.  Few basses singing today project their lowest notes with the impressive strength displayed by Mr. Hawlata, and his trueness of pitch even when singing low Cs and Ds is admirable.  Like Aminta, Sir Morosus can be an intriguingly multi-layered character when performed with sensitivity and dignity, and Mr. Hawlata’s performance explores many layers of the rôle’s contradictions: every inch the retired man of the sea, reliant upon no one for anything, he is nonetheless deeply attached to his nephew and, before her pre-marital silence comes to its inevitable end, his false bride.  Sung with unstinting wit and vocal panache, Mr. Hawlata’s Sir Morosus is a flawed but charming man one cannot help liking.

The extent to which Strauss’s music and Zweig’s libretto overcame the difficult circumstances of the genesis and first performances of Die schweigsame Frau is arguable, and the relative neglect of the opera in comparison with the worldwide success of its brethren in the Strauss canon suggests that it is a work of secondary importance at best.  Strauss himself once stated with typical irony that he understood himself to be a ‘second-rate composer’ but a decidedly first-rate one.  To a significant degree, the fairness of applying this assessment to Die schweigsame Frau depends upon the performance at hand.  Musically, the score is not the equal of its composer’s great masterpieces, but it is a Strauss score nonetheless, and Strauss at his least inspired was a superb craftsman with exceptional gifts for potent characterization and theatrical acumen.  With a team of singers with voices capable of meeting Strauss’s strenuous demands and personalities able to mine stereotypical characters for gems of emotional honesty, Die schweigsame Frau can prove an enriching experience.  Oper Chemnitz is not the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala, or the Wiener Staatsoper, and that is part of the undeniable felicity of this recording: that an opera company just outside of the international circuit could draw from its roster of ‘house’ singers an ensemble of such dedication, cooperation, and accomplishment is incredibly encouraging.  The singing in this performance is not invariably first-rate, but it rivals the best that could be heard today in any of the world’s opera houses, large or small, and—most significantly—it also achieves the enviable distinction of making Die schweigsame Frau a riotously enjoyable din from first noise to last.