Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Die Frau ohne Schatten - Staatstheater Kassel - 28 June 2014

Emperor – Ray M. Wade Jr
Empress – Vida Mikneviciute
Nurse – Ulrike Schneider
Spirit Messenger – Marc-Olivier Oetterli
Guardian of the Threshold of the Temple – Anna Nesyba
Voice of a Youth – Johannes An
Apparition of a Youth – Ingo Schiller
Falcon – Lin Lin Fan
Voice from Above – Maren Engelhardt
Barak, the dyer – Espen Fegran
Dyer’s Wife – Stephanie Friede
One-eyed Brother – Marian Pop
One-armed Brother – Krzysztof Borysiewicz
Hunchbacked Brother – Bassem Alkhouri
1st Maid – Anna Nesyba
2nd Maid – Maren Engelhardt
3rd Maid – Elisabeth Rogers
Children’s Voices – CANTAMUS
Voices of Nightwatchmen – Hansung Yoo, Tomasz Wija, Marc-Olivier Oetterli, Hee Saup Yoon
Children – CANTAMUS

Conductor – Patrik Ringborg
Director – Michael Schulz
Scenery – Dirk Becker
Costumes – Renée Listerdal
Dramaturge – Jürgen Otten
Lighting – Albert Geisel
Chorus Director – Marco Zeiser Celesti / Maria Radzikhovskiy

The coup de theatre in Michael Schulz's staging of Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten comes in the very final image. The two reconciled couples, Emperor and Empress, Barak and his wife of no name, are surrounded by all the children they are presumably about to have. The children have highly admonishing faces, which takes all the joy out of the adults' faces. A couple of officers stand above, waiting for their new generation of cannon fodder. As a reposte to the idea that Strauss and particularly Hofmannsthal saw their concocted fairytale as a call to the German people to go forth and multiply in the wake of the carnage of the First World War, this was a damningly pessimistic ending, especially ironic given the exultation of the accompanying music. For the first time, all that tosh about only motherhood making a woman complete had a purpose if one takes its message here as a warning: should we bring children into this world if their only fate is to repeat the tragedy of their parents' generation? Setting the whole opera at the time of its composition, during the 1914-18 war, thus gave added resonance; seeing it a hundred years to the day since the fateful assassination in Sarajevo more so.

The plot comes with its Kaiser already there, an emperor more interested in going hunting than concerned with those around him. This Kaiser, though, does not suffer petrification but instead at the climax of Act III seems to have shot himself when finally faced with the reality of the war he blithely had had others wage on his behalf: widows and orphans bury him behind the uniforms of their slaughtered husbands and fathers. Earlier, it had been this battle dress that the dyer Barak had been engaged in making; his three disfigured brothers are war invalids, and the family home becomes a makeshift hospital for the gas-blinded soldiers who in the first orchestral interlude had been shown confidently marching off to war. The wounded falcon is a flying ace and the youth is an all-pervasive dilettante falling for every woman he meets and (convincingly) miming the big cello and violin solos like a symbol of the old world destroyed by war.

Theatre Kassel's presentation of this fascinating rethinking was exemplary in both theatrical and musical terms. Despite a couple of rival productions being staged concurrently in Germany, this one was exceptionally well cast. Ulrike Schneider, the house's resident dramatic mezzo, made a formidable Nurse, with a voice that reminded me of the vehemence (in a good way) of Felicity Palmer. It would be hard to imagine the two rivals for the ownership of the shadow, the Empress and Dyer's Wife, more grippingly sung than from Vida Mikneviciute and Stephanie Friede and for once in Ray M. Wade Jr we were blessed with an Emperor who never showed a single sign of strain with Strauss's Heldentenor demands. The orchestral playing was accomplished under Patrick Ringborg's direction but never quite raised the roof in purely emotional terms.

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