Joseph Goebbels once opined that Richard Strauss was “decadent and neurotic”.  Regardless, any great composer who pokes fun at music in general and opera in particular sounds like a jolly Kerl to share a Trockenbeerenauslese with. In Die schweigsame Frau, the principal character explodes with rage at the idea of an opera singer even setting foot in his house. One can only imagine what Strauss’ diva assoluta wife Pauline de Ahna thought about that. Admittedly Die schweigsame Frau is not the best known of Strauss’ staggering musical output, even though its commedia dell’arte humour is reminiscent of Gianni Schicchi, Don Pasquale and the Vorspiel to Strauss' own Ariadne auf Naxos. There are scant sensuous soaring melodies and infectious waltz rhythms which make Der Rosenkavalier so immediately appealing or the disturbing dissonance of Salome or Elektra which still have the capacity to shock and awe.

Tara Erraught (Carlotta), Brenda Rae (Aminta) and Pavol Breslik (Henry Morosus) © Wilfried Hösl
Tara Erraught (Carlotta), Brenda Rae (Aminta) and Pavol Breslik (Henry Morosus)
© Wilfried Hösl

The Bayerische Staatsoper has an impressive Strauss tradition and first staged Die schweigsame Frau in 1947. The opera had previously been banned after two performances in Dresden in 1935 simply because librettist Stefan Zweig was Jewish. Esther Bialas’ clever costuming made the most memorable impact. Henry’s troupe of singers, which was so large it could have been a battalion, was attired to encompass almost every stereotypical opera character imaginable. Cio-Cio-San (Isotta), Violetta (Carlotta), Brünnhilde (Arminta), Wotan (Farfallo), Escamillo (Morbio), Rigoletto (Vanucci) plus Falstaff, Salome (complete with Johanaan’s cumbersome head), and Zeffirelli’s red velvet-robed Tosca, all portkeyed into Casa Morosus like a bizarre operatic pastiche by Breughel.

Komische Oper Berlin régisseur extraordinaire Barrie Kosky clearly had a lot of fun with this work and his direction of the many crowd scenes was masterful. Unfortunately in updating the opera from Ben Jonson’s time of 1790 to the present, a lot of textual references became incongruous. For example, in the pivotal role of the Barber, Kosky turned Schneiderbard into an Adidas tracksuit wearing masseur-cum-acupuncturist which made frequent textual references to shaving meaningless. The libretto also specifies that Morosus’ house should be from prow to poop full of nautical memorabilia. In Bialas’ mise-en-scène, a single bed on a raised podium in the centre of the stage was the sum total of the décor. Timidia’s extravagant redecoration in Act 3 had nothing to change and changed nothing, other than an amusing “pennies from heaven” stage trick when hundreds of gold coins cascaded from the ceiling.

Okka von der Damerau, Lars Woldt (Sir Morosus), Pavol Breslik (Henry) Nikolaj Borchev (Barber) © Wilfried Hösl
Okka von der Damerau, Lars Woldt (Sir Morosus), Pavol Breslik (Henry) Nikolaj Borchev (Barber)
© Wilfried Hösl

In a work where diction and attention to Stefan Zweig’s scintillating text is of paramount importance, the international cast acquitted themselves well. Lavinia Dames was a vocally impressive Isotta and Irish mezzo Tara Erraught a lusty Carlotta with a remarkably authentic Bavarian dialect as “Kathi”. Okka von der Damerau was an engaging Haushälterin with a predilection for room fresheners and amusingly fumigated the three matrimonial candidates in Act 2.

Vocal high points were a charming and robustly sung Henry by Bayerische Staatsoper Lieblingstenor Pavol Breslik; a similarly endearing Barber from Belorussian Nikolaj Borchev and a resonant Vanuzzi by Peter Lobert. The role of Aminta/Timidia was originally sung by Diana Damrau in this production and the stratospheric tessitura can be a terror for less nimble sopranos. Different to the fioratura pyrotechnics of Zerbinetta, Aminta has important high notes in the ensembles, especially the patter-ish Act 1 stretta and the rhapsodic Act 2 sextet where not only numerous high Cs are required but high E flats as well. There is also an exposed galactic high F natural sung piano at the end of Act 2. American soprano Brenda Rae not only excelled vocally but was dramatically convincing. Franz Hawlata sang the principal role of Sir John Morosus in the 2010 première of Kosky's production. Perhaps the voice was in better shape then but on this occasion, despite an agreeable legato in the two most lyrical moments in the opera the extreme range of the score were only approximate. Hawlata’s characterization was somewhat detached and bland and did little to engender sympathy.

© Wilfried Hösl
© Wilfried Hösl

Typical of all Strauss’ larger works, the orchestration in Die schwiegsame Frau is kaleidoscopic, rhythmically trenchant and exceeding complex. Apart from a few fluffed horn entries, the orchestra, under Hungarian maestro Stefan Soltesz, played with oomph and élan. There were some lush string colourings, especially at the end of Act 2, and the first clarinet was particularly mellifluous throughout. Soltesz seemed particularly anxious not to overwhelm the singers which often made the orchestral sound more reticent than Strauss intended.

Lots of laughs, lots of cheers and a strong argument that Strauss’ “Silent Woman” deserves to be heard.

***11