Of the several operas that resulted from collaboration between Richard Strauss and Hugo Hoffmannsthal, Die Frau ohne Schatten is probably the most complex and enigmatic. Its five principals must have voices strong enough to ride the often thick orchestra, and yet beautiful  enough for Strauss’ melodies. Bayerischer Staatsoper’s performance, which brought back four of the five singers who appeared in the première of the production earlier this season, more than fulfill these requirements. The production has many puzzling and awkward moments, but ends up being the celebration of simple human happiness at the end, with the stage filled with children.

Johan Botha (The Emperor) © Wilfried Hösl
Johan Botha (The Emperor)
© Wilfried Hösl

For the two performances of the opera this summer, Sebastian Weigle took over from Kirill Petrenko, the new music director of the Munich Opera who conducted the première performances. Weigle led a solid, well-paced and at times brilliant performance, and the orchestra responded beautifully under his baton. Especially notable were the solo violin and the glass harmonica (placed in one of the lower boxes right above the orchestra) of the third act.

Act III proved to be the most vivid one, both visually and conceptually, of Krzysztof Warlikowski's production. The Empress is a trauma victim and as the opera opens she is tended by the nurse who keeps her drugged and under her control. The Empress’s awakening as an independent and compassionate being is the centre of the opera, as she learns to confront her fear and her father through her dealings with Barak and his wife. By the third act, she ceases to spend time on the couch in a dream-like state and instead walks confidently away from the nurse who is now reduced to exhibiting psychotic behaviour and is taken away in a straightjacket.

Deborah Polaski (Nurse), Elena Pankratova (The Dyer's Wife) and Adrianne Pieczonka (The Empress) © Wilfried Hösl
Deborah Polaski (Nurse), Elena Pankratova (The Dyer's Wife) and Adrianne Pieczonka (The Empress)
© Wilfried Hösl

Barak the Dyer here runs a laundry service and his marital problem largely plays out as a sideshow to the Empress’s journey. Vocally, the strongest performance comes from Elena Pankratova as the Dyer’s Wife. The Russian soprano possesses a strong chest voice that could easily cut through the orchestra and dominate the ensemble. She can shade her voice to express many nuances of the role, and never seemed to have to push very hard; even in the  high range, her voice remained warm and sumptuous.

Adrianne Pieczonka’s Empress started a bit tentatively but she improved in Act II and was truly impressive in the important third act. Her high notes were mostly secure, and her monologue was a tour de force. Her Emperor was sung by South African tenor Johan Botha, whose first act aria seemed to lack some of his usual ease of delivery. However, he also gained strength as the opera went on; his celebration of life in the third act was a pleasure to hear.

The other two principals, Deborah Polaski’s Nurse and John Lundgren’s Barak, were quite solid. Polaski negotiated the Nurse’s tricky and demanding melodies with solid technique and still good voice, especially in Act I. She was also an excellent actress, playing both a protective but manipulative and dominant nurse in the beginning and a defeated and neurotic patient at the end. Lundgren, a Swedish baritone, is new to the production, but held his own, although he was somewhat pressed towards the end. He and Pankratova played the troubled couple as two people who deeply care for each other but are unable to communicate, and Lundgren’s portrayal was particularly sympathetic.

Minor roles were well sung, but most were off stage, including the poignant trio of the night watchmen that ends the first act.

Sebastian Holecek (Spirit Messenger), Deborah Polaski (Nurse) and Adrianne Pieczonka (The Empress) © Wilfried Hösl
Sebastian Holecek (Spirit Messenger), Deborah Polaski (Nurse) and Adrianne Pieczonka (The Empress)
© Wilfried Hösl

Warlikowski's production places the opera sometime in the recent modern period, perhaps mid 20th century, in an institutional setting. The two worlds, that of the Emperor/Empress and of Barak/his Wife, share the same space, which sometimes closes, with shutters used as a kind of elevator to transport the principals, to become domestic space, and which sometimes opens to a large institutional space with white walls. Projections are used judiciously, and while the big images of Gandhi, Marilyn Monroe, Spiderman and Buddha on the background as the final notes are played do not make much sense, the depiction of the world collapsing at the end of Act II and adrift at the beginning of the third act was quite effective.

The question of fertility, which is the central theme of the opera, is addressed by using children throughout, often to bring the adults together. The final scene is dominated by a number of children whose playful actions are shown as shadows on the back wall, as the beautiful quartet rang out.