I had a chance to go to the Met’s highly reflective production of Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten on Saturday afternoon.* I’m not sure going to see a massive Strauss opera with a headcold and sitting in the back row of the Family Circle is necessarily a winning combination. Due most likely to a combination of the size of the orchestra and the amount of fluid in my ears, the sound – by the time it reached the inside of my head, at least – was tilted heavily towards the orchestra rather than the singers. I could hear them just fine most of the time, but I had moments where I started to panic and wonder if I hadn’t ruptured an eardrum or something. (But then again, if that were the case, I wouldn’t be able to hear the orchestra or the singers, would I. Certainly there is nothing on the internet about eardrum ruptures about operatic sound balance. And my other half who went with me and is in perfect health noticed the same thing. Possibly this is some sort of Tylenol-induced paranoia.)
But there is some lovely orchestral music in this. I’d never heard this opera before, so my impressions are of the broad and blurry type – and I often find Strauss’s orchestral music so dense that it’s hard to absorb much on a first hearing but especially during the third act I found myself really enjoying it. The plot, though, not so much. As a rule I like Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s librettos, but this one rubbed me the wrong way. It’s like a bunch of slightly creepy early twentieth-century natalists decided to get high together and rewrite The Magic Flute. The opera premiered in 1919, so I guess after WWI this makes a certain amount of sense. Also, in consulting the program for the date of the opera’s premiere, I see that I am not nuts to compare it to Mozart’s opera – Strauss and Hofmannsthal were thinking of that opera when they wrote this one. But the part in Act II where the chorus of potential children guilt-trip the (unlike her husband, nameless) Dyer’s Wife? I could have done without that.
As far as singing is concerned, the audience went wild for Christine Goerke as the Dyer’s Wife. Goerke’s voice is big and booming and solid-sounding – she was exciting to hear. I’m not familiar enough with the opera to say much about interpretation. The other moments that I particularly liked came from Anne Schwanewilms as the Empress. There are two sections of Act III where the Empress is accompanied by slightly less of the orchestra than usual (I believe it’s the bit where the Empress is looking for her father and I think later deciding whether to drink the Water of Life) and Schwanewilms’s singing was both beautiful – in a bright and clear kind of way – and powerful.
I am not yet entirely won over to this opera. There is often so much going on at once in Strauss’s operas that they can be sort of overwhelming until one gets used to them. Even ones I know a little better, like Der Rosenkavalier, there are sections – like the explosion of people into the Marschallin’s room in Act I – that I still have trouble picking apart. Maybe the solution is to find a score? If I could see what was going on in addition to hearing it, that might help. But with Frau ohne Schatten I’m glad I heard it, but I’m not sure I’m in love with it enough to make the effort.
*Reflective in the sense that the Spirit World is represented by a kind of mirrored box, and those who come from it are often costumed in layers of sparkly fabric; the Nurse’s magic that she uses to tempt the Dyer’s Wife involves a mirror.