26 August 2015

CD REVIEW: Richard Strauss – DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN (T. Wilson, B. Fritz, T. Stensvold, S. Hogrefe, T. A. Baumgartner; Oehms Classics OC 964)

CD REVIEW: Richard Strauss - DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN (Oehms Classics OC 964)RICHARD STRAUSS (1864 – 1949): Die Frau ohne Schatten, Opus 65Tamara Wilson (Die Kaiserin), Burkhard Fritz (Der Kaiser), Terje Stensvold (Barak, der Färber), Sabine Hogrefe (Die Färberin), Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Die Amme), Franz Mayer (Der Einäugige, Ein Stimme der Wächter der Stadt), Björn Bürger (Der Einarmige, Ein Stimme der Wächter der Stadt), Hans-Jürgen Lazar (Der Bucklige), Dietrich Volle (Der Geisterbote, Ein Stimme der Wächter der Stadt), Michael Porter (Erscheinung des Jünglings), Brenda Rae (Ein Hüter der Schwelle des Tempels, Stimme des Falken), Katharina Magiera (Stimme von oben), Birgit Treschau (Dienerin), Alketa Hoxha (Dienerin), Yvonne Hettegger (Dienerin), Young Sook Kim (Dienerin), Hiromi Mori (Dienerin), Book-Sill Kim (Kinderstimme), Camelia Suzana Peteu (Kinderstimme), Gunda Boote (Kinderstimme), Jianhua Zhu (Kinderstimme), Christiane Maria Waschk (Kinderstimme); Chor der Oper Frankfurt; Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester; Sebastian Weigle, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during staged performances at Oper Frankfurt, Germany, in October and November 2014; Oehms Classics OC 964; 3 CDs, 193:10; Available from Oehms Classics, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Whether symptomatic of perversity or profundity, Richard Strauss's and Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Die Frau ohne Schatten is a score that engages my emotions very intensely; more intensely, in truth, than almost any other opera yet written. I do not claim that my affection for the opera fully plumbs the depths of its mystical symbolism, but I question the insightfulness of any artist, critic, or casual listener who fails to fathom the opera's pervasive, persuasive humanity. Like Mozart's and Schikaneder's Die Zauberflöte, the drama of Die Frau ohne Schatten occupies multiple planes of meaning. Taken at face value, its plot is fanciful but simple enough, recounting the necessity of a woman artificially obtaining what others naturally possess, but the collisions of privilege and privation, magnanimity and ennui, tangible and ephemeral inspired composer and librettist to look more deeply into the recesses of the psyches of the opera’s characters than in any of their other collaborations. Composed in the tempestuous years between 1911 and 1917, the dins and dissonances of World War I pockmark Strauss’s score, tempered by the strata of hope and resilience that are the most forceful weapons in an artist’s arsenal. Vitally, though, one need not wholly submerge oneself in the libretto's symbolism in order to be swept away by the surging currents of Strauss's music. The foremost majesty of Die Frau ohne Schatten is the simplicity that frolics in its depths: the characters who populate the opera's conflicting worlds are legendarily complex, but the emotions that motivate their actions—love, fear, guilt, longing—are surprisingly uncomplicated.

Like many operas with troublesome plots, Die Frau ohne Schatten has fallen victim to efforts to obviate the disconnect between the opera's singular philosophical milieu and the sensibilities of modern listeners. The desire to entice audiences with musical pageants in which their own lives are reflected is a critical component in the effort to ensure opera's continued existence and expansion, but it is a mistake to attempt to force an opera like Die Frau ohne Schatten into a mold of so-called relevance. Place the action in Revolution-era France, Nazi Germany, Franco's Spain, or some post-apocalyptic No Man's Land, and Die Frau ohne Schatten is no more approachable than when set into the temporal limbo stipulated by the libretto. Not even in Elektra did Strauss create a sound world so meticulously as in Die Frau ohne Schatten, during the three acts of which virtually every tenet of Nineteenth-Century tonality is dismantled, rearranged, and reassembled in ways that link the traditions of Brahms and Bruckner with the new directions of Schönberg and Webern. In practical terms, there is no making a work dealing with a woman transformed from a gazelle by a man who is himself on the cusp of literally being petrified relevant to audiences young or old. Die Frau ohne Schatten is an opera that requires suspension of disbelief. Recorded during staged performances at Oper Graz, this recording of Die Frau ohne Schatten establishes a context for the opera that depends upon nothing but the responses that Strauss's music and Hofmannsthal's words provoke. Ultimately, fully grasping the meaning of the opera’s metaphorical pragmatism is not as important as understanding why Die Frau ohne Schatten can be so moving.

Having shown himself to be an astonishingly versatile conductor in previous Oper Frankfurt productions recorded by Oehms Classics, Sebastian Weigle affirms on these discs that he is a conductor of incredible significance. Conducting Die Frau ohne Schatten is a task at which even conductors acknowledged as great talents have failed. Conducted at its 1919 Vienna première by Strauss's colleague Franz Schalk, a noted advocate for music by Bruckner and Mahler and a founder of the Salzburger Festspiele, Die Frau ohne Schatten has accumulated a very short list of wholly successful interpreters in the subsequent century. Karl Böhm was the opera's great champion in the Twentieth Century, followed by Joseph Keilberth, Herbert von Karajan (who took the liberty of reordering scenes), Wolfgang Sawallisch, and Giuseppe Sinopoli. Since the dawning of the new millennium, few conductors have vied for the Frau ohne Schatten laurels: Christian Thielemann has perhaps been the most visible contender, but Weigle's direction of this performance is equal to the very best of Thielemann's work. [As a point of reference for comparison, I cite Thielemann's conducting of a 2001 performance of Herbert Wernicke's production at the Metropolitan Opera, attended but not formally reviewed. All of Thielemann's MET appearances to date have been in Strauss operas: Der Rosenkavalier, Arabella, and Die Frau ohne Schatten.] In this performance, magnificently recorded via the ‘Oper Frankfurt Recording System’ and produced by Christian Wilde, Weigle favors the lean textures characteristic of his work, but the grandeur of Strauss's orchestrations, composed for the most extravagant instrumental ensemble required for any of his operas, is ever apparent. The scene changes, music that can easily dissolve into cacophony, are handled with unerring attention to their harmonic progressions: Weigle imparts a sense of knowing where the music started and to where it leads. Strauss made supporting the singers a difficult undertaking, but Weigle ensures that orchestral textures uplift the principals. Both the Chor der Oper Frankfurt and the Frankurter Opern- und Museumsorchester achieve extraordinary heights of excellence in their performances of Strauss’s music, every section of the orchestra playing wonderfully. The grueling celesta and glockenspiel parts are executed with special virtuosity, and Weigle oversees the weaving of tonal tapestries that serve as stunningly colorful backdrops for Hofmannsthal’s drama. Conducting Die Frau ohne Schatten requires an unique skill set, but the attention to details of orchestral timbres, rhythmic precision, and cohesion between stage and pit that are invaluable in Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini scores are no less paramount in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Weigle is a renowned master of these qualities, and he shapes a clear-sighted, logically-paced performance that focuses on the incredible allure and emotional weight of the music rather than struggling in the quagmire of extrapolated interpretations.

​The first statements of the Keikobad motif, as momentous as the motif representing Agamemnon in Elektra, that raise the curtain bellow menacingly in this performance, focusing the listener's attention for the introduction of one of the production's greatest strengths, the Amme of German mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner. Though the Amme is one of the most challenging rôles in the German repertory, she has often been entrusted to singers in the final phases of their careers: indeed, perhaps it is because of the incredible difficulty of the part that it has so often been sung by aging artists with nothing left to lose. Among recorded Ammen, only Irene Dalis, Mignon Dunn, and Ruth Hesse rival the histrionic intensity of Baumgartner's interpretation of the rôle, and neither they nor Elisabeth Höngen, Reinhild Runkel, and Hanna Schwarz sing the music more comfortably. Simply in terms of range and tessitura, it is a hellishly demanding rôle, essentially one for a lady with the range of a contralto, the sensibilities of a lyric mezzo-soprano, and the power and stamina of a dramatic soprano—in short, Erda, Carmen, and Isolde in a single throat. The Amme's first phrases following 'Licht über'm See - ein fließender Glanz' take her to top A♭, followed in short order by an exchange with the Geisterbote that, traversing the dramatically-vital phrase 'Er wird zu Stein,' descends first to low E♭ and then climbs two-and-a-half octaves to A on 'Er wird zu Stein!' Later, in her conversation with the Färberin, she is asked to unleash an explosive B♭♭ in 'Ach! Schönheit ohne Gleichen!' Baumgartner not only meets these demands with ease but manages to do so with absolute security and often revelatory beauty of tone. One delights in rather than dreading this Amme's lines. In Act Two, Baumgartner delivers 'Komm bald weider nach haus, mein Gebieter' with manipulative sweetness, followed by an account of 'Es sind Übermächte im Spiel, o meine Herrin' that exudes barely-concealed contempt. At the act's end, she unleashes a mighty 'Übermächte sind im Spiel! Herzu mir!' and brings down the unseen curtain with a top B♭ that charges the atmosphere like summer lightning. Catapulting to her demise in Act Three, this Amme is fearless, phrasing 'Fort von hier! Hilf mir vom Fels lösen den Kahn!' and 'Fort von der Schwelle, sie zu betreten, ist mehr als Tod' with unhesitant haughtiness that extends to her ringing top B♭. The same tone reverberates in her meteoric 'Fressendes Feuer in ihr Gebein!' Baumgartner indulges in none of the foolishness in when many Ammen mire their final moments. What need has she of melodramatics when she is capable of singing her music so idiomatically? Baumgartner is a hair-raising Amme not because there is constant fear of the voice unraveling but because she sings Strauss's music as written, eschewing the cawing and cackling that have become typical in the part. Simply put, she sets a new, drastically elevated standard for recorded Ammen.

American soprano Brenda Rae, the delightfully full-toned Zerbinetta in Oper Frankfurt's 2013 Ariadne auf Naxos, also conducted by Weigle and recorded by Oehms Classics, is an atypically glamorous Falkenstimme and Hüter der Schwelle des Tempels. The historical precedents for such luxurious casting of the Falkenstimme—the very young Christa Ludwig for Hessischen Rundfunks, Lucia Popp in Vienna, and Linda Roark-Strummer in San Francisco—are splendidly upheld by Rae’s glistening singing of 'Wie soll ich denn nicht weinen?' in Act One and 'Die Frau wirft keinen Schatten, der Kaiser ​muß versteinen!' in Act Two. She is no less persuasive as the Hüter der Schwelle des Tempels. Franz Mayer, Björn Bürger, and Hans-Jürgen Lazar cannot hope to match Rae’s vocal resplendence as Barak’s one-eyed, one-armed, and hunchbacked brothers, but they sing characterfully. Bürger and Mayer are joined by Dietrich Volle, the granite-voiced Geisterbote, in a lovely performance of the city watch’s 'Ihr Gatten in den Häusern dieser Stadt.' Katharina Magiera delivers the Stimme von oben’s 'Auf, geh nach oben, Mann, der Weg ist frei' authoritatively, and the ensemble of Dienerinnen—Birgit Treschau, Alketa Hoxha, Yvonne Hettegger, Young Sook Kim, and Hiromi Mori—make easy going of their high-flying music. Likewise, the well-integrated ensemble of Kinderstimmen—Bock-Sill Kim, Camelia Suzana Peteu, Gunda Boote, Jianhau Zhu, and Christiane Maria Waschk—might stir the maternal instincts of the most reluctant mother with their rendition of 'Mutter, Mutter, laß uns nach hause!'

Singing the one-dimensional Kaiser [in many performances, he might well be stone from the start], tenor Burkhard Fritz works hard in a rôle in which mere survival is admirable. The assertion that Strauss detested the tenor voice persists even in academic circles, and his music for the Kaiser in Die Frau ohne Schatten is not an inappropriate example to present in defense of the allegation. The Kaiser has daunting episodes in each of the opera’s three acts, beginning in Act One with 'Amme! Wachst du?' This is music that has defeated a number of otherwise capable singers, but Fritz sings strongly, manfully weathering the problematic tessitura. He sings with audible tenderness as the Kaiser describes his first encounter with the Kaiserin. Notes at the top of the compass are not ideally projected, but Fritz sings the rôle without compromises. His performance in Act Two is a model of dramatic fortitude, the sentiments of the text expressed with imagination that takes flight on the wings of Strauss’s music. His accounts of 'Falke, Falke, du wiedergefundener' and the harrowing 'O weh, Falke, o weh!' are spellbinding. In Act Three, Fritz voices 'Wenn das Herz aus Kristall zerbricht in einem Schrei' forcefully but with elasticity of line. Like Baumgartner, Fritz sings rather than shouting his music, and the benefits to both Strauss and Hofmannsthal are phenomenal.

For the latter half of the Twentieth Century, one name was synonymous with the Kaiserin in the minds and affections of many admirers of Die Frau ohne Schatten: Leonie Rysanek. Recording the rôle for DECCA under Karl Böhm’s direction in 1955 and portraying the Kaiserin in staged productions in Europe and America, including in the score’s Metropolitan Opera première in 1966, the Viennese soprano quite simply was the Kaiserin for generations of listeners. The marvels of Rysanek’s vocal endowment notwithstanding, her enduring dominance in the Kaiserin’s music was due in part to the paucity of singers capable of rivaling her level of excellence in the rôle. Oper Frankfurt found in American soprano Tamara Wilson a Kaiserin to uphold and enrich the Rysanek legacy with singing of superb immediacy and tonal attractiveness superior even to what her great Austrian predecessor offered. At her first entrance in Act One, the girlishness of Wilson's singing is arresting, her management of the trill and top A♭s and B♭s in the bars following 'Ist mein Liebster dahin' allied with a slightly self-conscious naïveté. Then, though, Wilson's staccato D6 dispels any suspicion that this is going to be a shrinking violet Kaiserin. Wilson launches the top B on 'Er hat uns vergeben' with brilliance, but even this is scant preparation for the potency of her ascent to top B♭ on 'Amme, um alles, wo find ich den Schatten!' and the massive top C on 'Der Kaiser muß versteinen!' Heard in the scene with the Färberin, Wilson's voice radiates poise and purity up to the shining top B in 'Willst du um dies Spiegelbild nicht den hohlen Schatten geben?' In Act Two, this Kaiserin's conflicting emotions subject her to debilitating inner turmoil that the singer expresses devastatingly in 'Weh! Muß dies geschehen vor meinen Augen?' and 'Ach! Wehe! Daß sie sich treffen müßen' without upsetting the balance of the voice or the admirable security of her top C. She proves a first-rate singing actress in the act's third scene, limning the eloquent feelings of 'Es gibt deren, die haben immer Zeit' with subtlety and detonating another awe-inspiring top C on 'Ach! Weh mir, wohin!' The sheer beauty of the soprano's voicing of 'Vor solchen Blicken liegen Cherubim auf ihrem Angesicht!' is breathtaking, the ascent to top B♭ again achieved seemingly without effort. Wilson's singing of 'Ihm keine Hilfe, dem andern Verderben!' is nothing short of exquisite: her gleaming top D♭ alone is a mesmerizing reason to hear and treasure this recording. Her spoken passage in Act Three discloses a comfort with Hofmannsthal's German, but it is Wilson's comfort with Strauss's music throughout the performance that renders her Kaiserin a magnificent portrayal. Few are the singers past or present who have equaled Rysanek in any of her best rôles, but Wilson here establishes herself as the new paragon in the Kaiserin's music.

Listeners familiar with the Die Frau ohne Schatten discography have been spoiled by the presence of Fritz Wunderlich as the Erscheinung des Jünglings​ in a 1964 Wiener Staatsoper broadcast performance conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Young tenor Michael Porter creates a golden-voiced charmer in the Wunderlich tradition with a rhapsodic voicing of 'Gäb' ich um dies Spiegelbild doch sie Seele und mein Leben!' in Act One. Returning in Act Two, he beguiles his listeners on stage and over the airwaves with 'Wer tut mir das, daß ich jäh muß stehen von meiner Herrin!' The Erscheinung des Jünglings is superfluous if he lacks fetchingly handsome tones to lure the Färberin into the Amme’s and Kaiserin’s bargain: Porter’s singing could tempt her into committing far direr sins.

The Färberin’s first note is a top B♭, immediately announcing that her part is destined to be a trial for even the most gifted dramatic soprano. In the course of this performance, German soprano Sabine Hogrefe verifies the legitimacy of her answering to that description. Sparring with her husband’s deformed brothers when she is first heard in Act One, the annoyance and frustration in Hogrefe’s singing of 'Schamlose ihr!' erupt from her voice, and the disillusionment of her voicing of 'O Welt in der Welt! O Traum im Wachen!' is epitomized by her grumbling descent to low F. Completing her circuitous journey thought Act One, Hogrefe soars to the top B♭ in 'Was winselt so gräßlich aus diesem Feuer?' with panache. The life-changing trajectory of Act Two draws from Hogrefe dazzling accounts of 'Ich weiß von keinem Manne außer ihm' and 'Meinen Pantoffel in dein Gesicht,' the sinewy brawn of her singing contrasting with the poetic wonder of her 'Es gibt derer, die bleiben immer gelassen.’ Lustrous tonal pulchritude is not always Hogrefe’s to command, but the unexpected beauty of the character she creates is tremendously affecting. In Act Three, Hogrefe unlooses a tide of anguish with 'Schweiget doch, ihr Stimmen!' that annihilates the Färberin’s former querulousness. Her recitation of 'Barak, mein Mann, o, daß du mich hörtest' is unspeakably poignant. The transformation that Hogrefe depicts in the opera’s final scene is jubilantly resolved in her singing of 'Trifft mich sein Lieben nicht.’ Sailing to the top C in unison with the Kaiserin, Hogrefe’s Färberin clearly finds complete fulfillment, not in the external sources to which she was dedicated in Act One but within herself and her love for her husband.

This production of Die Frau ohne Schatten served as the vehicle for Norwegian baritone Terje Stensvold's farewell to Oper Frankfurt, a company that witnessed many of the singer's greatest triumphs, including his Wotan in Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. Solely as a document of this occasion, this recording is valuable, but Stensvold, not an artist content to accept accolades without earning them, sings Barak with such grace and gravity that it is his performance rather than his reputation that garners appreciation. Often bringing the unforgettable late-career work of Hans Hotter to mind, Stensvold's vocalism is no longer wholly steady, but his intonation remains exact and his dramatic instincts unimpeded. The part's range strains him, but the Barak who sings effortlessly is likely not worth hearing. Though the vibrato has loosened, the timbre possesses a lovely russet patina that lends an appealing autumnal glow to the baritone's singing, apparent from his first notes in 'Hinaus mit euch!' The Cs, Ds, and E♭s that litter Barak's vocal lines are produced by Stensvold with heartening solidity and thrust. Barak's unassailable good humor is apparent in Stensvold's singing of 'Trag' ich die Ware mir selber zu Markt,' but the sadness of his unexaggerated 'Hörst du die Wächter, Kind, und ihren Ruf?' is wrenching. Stensvold condenses the whole panoply of Barak's emotions into two words with his weary but hopeful declamation of 'Sei's denn!' Stensvold devotes a veteran Wotan's world-weariness to his depiction of Barak's straits in Act Two, phrasing 'Was ist nun deine Rede' and especially 'Komm her, du stillgehende Muhme, da ist für dich!' with emotional directness and sincerity that tear at the heart. The feat that he brought off in Act One is repeated with his soul-searching utterance of 'Wer da?' in Act Two. The poetry of Stensvold's account of 'Mir anvertraut, daß ich sie hege, daß ich sie trage' in Act Three is complemented by the unfettered joy of his singing of 'Steh nur, ich finde dich' in the opera's final scene, his top Fs and Gs demonstrative of Barak's exultation at being reunited with his beloved wife. In an era in which emerging singers are often assigned rôles for which their voices and techniques are not ready merely because their faces will appear youthfully appealing to audiences, Stensvold's Barak—and his career as a whole, for that matter—should be a model to be studied. In this performance, the voice does not function as flawlessly as it did a decade ago, but this is a Barak who shirks nothing. In reality, Stensvold gets right at the heart of the character and why Die Frau ohne Schatten is so touching: love is as imperfect as the people who feel it but also more perfect in its abilities to heal and bind even perilously-injured hearts than the astounding symmetry of nature.

Die Frau ohne Schatten is a journey. The peculiar marvel of the opera is that, from an interpretive perspective, the points at which it begins and ends are different for every artist who performs it and every listener who hears it. Under Sebastian Weigle’s baton, Oper Frankfurt’s Die Frau ohne Schatten begins with discord and ends with harmony. Between these states, a performance of staggering eloquence is consummated by a group of artists for whom Strauss’s music and Hofmannsthal’s words are not esoteric symbols but components of the collective human experience that any individual with the gift of hearing can appreciate.