The unnecessary celebrations of Richard Strauss’ 150th birthday seem to have begun early at the Metropolitan Opera. Two weeks after this Die Frau ohne Schatten comes Der Rosenkavalier, and a few months after that Arabella. By the standards of Strauss at the Met, Herbert Wernicke’s Frau is still new at only a dozen years old. Otto Schenk’s Arabella will be nineteen next year, while Nathaniel Merrill’s Der Rosenkavalier was premièred during the first year of the Nixon administration. We will see whether those gaudy old productions will retain their sheen this time around, but Wernicke’s remains dazzling.

© Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
© Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera

Wernicke’s sets shimmer with the illusion of unfulfilled dreams. Walls of mirrors surround the stage when scenes take place in the land of the spirits, lights constantly shift to symbolise mental states, while Rorschach images on the back wall intimate moons, blood, and other icons of fertility. The human world is industrial, but not quite grimly so, and action there takes place entirely in the Dyer’s workshop, replete with birdcage and an endless supply of green beer bottles. Wernicke uses the Met’s stage well, creating an impression of perspective and transitioning seamlessly. The symbolism is just enough to bring out the Freudian undertones of Hofmannsthal’s libretto, but only just: indeed, the production is so concerned with glitter as to verge on glib. That said, though, only the conclusion jars, as the four main characters step onto the apron, with stage lights draped behind them, to deliver Strauss’ Die Zauberflöte-esque paean to postwar regeneration and the nuclear family. The breaking down of the stage’s fourth wall, sometimes an effective conveyor of opera’s social message, surely needs to be put away when done as predictably as here.

Of course, Die Frau ohne Schatten touches on much more than family planning. If the opera is “about” anything, that “about” must involve progress, hopes, gender relations, and social standing – indeed, what it takes to be human itself. As Hofmannsthal puts it in the libretto, even written during the First World War, this work is concerned with how from “ewigem Tode” (eternal death) humanity finds “ewigem Leben” (eternal life), like a phoenix (or perhaps a red falcon, ably danced here by Scott Weber). Stage director J. Knighten Smit’s success is to produce acting subtle enough from his female leads, Christine Goerke and Anne Schwanewilms, to convey the complexity of motives and shadows in Hofmannsthal’s text and Strauss’ music.

Goerke, fresh from rave reviews in London, triumphed as the Dyer’s Wife. She possesses a voice of vast power, tamed with an attention to text and an expressive sensibility that allow genuine humanity even with this character’s less appealing traits. Schwanewilms paled slightly in comparison, but managed a dreamily believable portrayal sung with a crystalline ethereality. Despite conductor Vladimir Jurowski’s efforts, she was often swamped by Strauss’ textures and the sheer volume of such a large orchestra. Of the male leads, Johan Reuter compelled as Barak, earnest but somehow still understanding. He sang with a much more penetrating voice than tenor Torsten Kerl, whose Emperor was portrayed with dignity but which struggled to be heard, despite a full tone. Ildikó Komlósi hectored and snapped with telling comic timing as the Nurse, but might have brought out more of her character’s venomous malice. Of the lesser roles, Richard Paul Fink’s Messenger was particularly terrifying in his booming declarations of fate.

Jurowski might not be the first name that comes to mind when thinking of eminent Straussians, with his usual palette of steely greys and his tendency to push on. The first act was driven hard, but not too much so, and it had its moments of exquisite tenderness. The second and third acts were more convincing, as Jurowski drew fearless playing from an orchestra on special form, pushing them to give an ever more precise sound, and using it to convey the emotions at this opera's core with a striking immediacy and warmth. Solo turns from concertmaster David Chan and cellist Jerry Grossman were impeccable. This was not luxurious Strauss, but it was effective.

****1