Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"Die Frau ohne Schatten", by Richard Strauss, certainly provides an allegory for the culture wars

I had requested the rental of the (TDK) DVD’s for Richard Strauss’s 1911 opera “Die Frau ohne Schatten” (“The Woman without a Shadow”), over a year ago and it stayed in the Netflix “very long wait” for a long time.
But suddenly I got it, as an extra over my quota, a two-disc set.  The performance is conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch, in 1992, at the Aichi Prefectural Art Theater in Nagoya, Japan, with the Bavarian State Opera. The stage director is Ennosuke Ichikawa, and soloists include Peter Seiffert (the emperor, and somewhat foppish). Luana Devol, Marjana Lipovsek, and Alan Titus.
The libretto, by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is controversial. A particular Emperor has adapted a half-human wife as an empress.  She is “without a shadow” meaning she cannot bear him human heirs.  But unless she overcomes this obstacle within twelve moon cycles, the Emperor will himself turn to stone, as his kingdom comes to an end. 
Much of the plot concerns the intervention of the empress in the lives of a dyer and his wife, who secretly does not want to have children; so somehow there needs to develop a scheme for the empress to get that capacity from her.  Wikipedia gives all the allegorical details, spread out over three acts.  At the end of act two, the dyer (named “Barak”) and his wife are swallowed by an earthquake, simulated on stage by red and blue curtains, but survive.

At the end, the world is not a zero-sum game, and the empress’s kindness gives her fertility without taking it from the other wife.

It’s possible to see this as a meditation on the moral issues surrounding openness to procreation, the way the Vatican has spun it.  But some see Mozart’s “Magic Flute” (May 3) that way. 

The opera demands some bizarre effects, such as children singing out of a frying pan, and a golden waterfall.

The music seems typical of Strauss, being  chromatic and sometimes bordering on polytonality.  The opening seems to be in the unusual key of G# Minor.  The second Act ends with the earthquake in a cacophonous B-flat minor.  The orchestra is huge. In the last act, there is some much that foreshadow’s "Peace Day” ("Friedenstag", which I have on  Koch CD, and which is notorious for the gratuitous bombast at the very end)  but the music dies down to a quiet ending in C.
I’ve seen Salome (in Dallas) and Elektra (in New York) in opera houses.  Other composers:  I’ve seen Britten’s “Peter Grimes” in Dallas and “Billy Budd” in Washington;  Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” in New York and “Lulu” just on PBS. 

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