Thursday, 6 March 2014

A Fairy-Tale Search for Humanity: Die Frau ohne Schatten

Here's another departure from standard blog style, but I thought it might be worth republishing another piece about Die Frau ohne Schatten ahead of its return to the Royal Opera next week (there are still plenty of tickets, made all the more enticing by several special offers). In this case, this is a more general introduction to the work, albeit one that addresses its problems and complexities. It was originally written for the programme for the Mariinsky performances of the opera at the Edinburgh International Festival in September 2011 (in Jonathan Kent's production, recently released on DVD and Blu-ray on the Mariinsky's own label). I'm grateful for permission to reproduce it here. 



Die Frau ohne Schatten sits squarely and imposingly at the centre of Strauss’s career as an opera composer. It is the seventh of his 15 operas and the third fully collaborative one of the five that Strauss composed to librettos by the Viennese poet and dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The period from the first mention by Hofmannsthal of the new project (late in 1910), through its completion in 1917, to the eventual premiere at the Vienna Opera two years later, covers the central decade of Strauss’s composing life. It also, of course, encompassed the years of a conflict that changed the world for ever.

Die Frau ohne Schatten was conceived in the golden twilight of what the Viennese writer Stefan Zweig (later also a librettist of Strauss’s) called a ‘Golden Age of Security’, consciously positioned as the summation of a great tradition whose foundations were left irreparably shaken by World War I. Work on the opera, moreover, had left both men drained. Strauss, during the final stages of composition, declared ‘let’s make up our minds that Die Frau ohne Schatten shall be the last Romantic opera’. Hofmannsthal continued to develop the subject as the Erzählung, a prose novella, finally completed in 1919; but he promised his composer that subsequent collaborations would be ‘in a light genre, not gigantic burdens on your shoulders, such as Die Frau ohne Schatten must have been’.

The opera’s gestation had been a story of delays, imposed both from without and within. And Hofmannsthal, from the start, had anticipated that the ‘joint chief work’ would take time. ‘With a beautiful subject such as Die Frau ohne Schatten’, he wrote to Strauss in May 1911, ‘so able to become the vehicle of beautiful poetry and beautiful music … it would be a crime if one wanted to hurry, wanted to force oneself.’ And take his time Hofmannsthal did: the first scene of Act I was finally sent to Strauss as a ‘little New Year’s gift’ on 28 December 1913, a full three years after the first mention of the new project; it was not until nearly two years later that the composer had Act III to hand.

For the librettist, Die Frau ohne Schatten set out to realize Goethe’s own operatic ideal, emulate the humanist message of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and present a shimmering kaleidoscope of literary allusion, from East and West. The forbidding spectre of Wagner, too, hovered Keikobad-like over the whole enterprise: Strauss’s vast score used a rich tapestry of Wagnerian leitmotif; Hofmannsthal’s libretto echoed many episodes in the old master’s music dramas.

As a fairy-tale concentrating on the search for humanity, it was also a project particularly close to the librettist’s heart. The precocious young Hofmannsthal, whose essays and poetry had made him the toast of literary Vienna while he was still a teenager in the early 1890s, had finally renounced a life of aesthetic and intellectual isolation, most famously in his ‘Letter to Lord Chandos’ (1902). Die Frau can be understood to reflect his own search for humanity, and broader social relevance, in his work. 

All this ambition seemed justified, however, by the success of the first two Strauss–Hofmannsthal operas. Elektra (1908) had been based on Hofmannsthal’s existing adaptation of Sophocles, originally written for the producer Max Reinhardt in 1903; but Der Rosenkavalier (1911) was fully collaborative, completed on schedule and, in spite of the inevitable niggles and quibbles, as smoothly as could be expected. Among a multitude of ideas for potential successors to that work, those for Ariadne auf Naxos and Die Frau ohne Schatten began to take shape at about the same time, in 1910, initially sharing several elements (notably the idea of incorporating the commedia dell’arte pair of Harlekin and Smeraldine, who became central to Ariadne but also leave traces in the ‘lowly’ couple Barak and his wife in Die Frau).

Hofmannsthal developed a straightforward strategy: Die Frau ohne Schatten would be left to stew on the back burner; Ariadne auf Naxos would be composed as an interim theatrical experiment, a modest thank-you for Reinhardt, who had helped Der Rosenkavalier on to the stage. It would also help Hofmannsthal hone his skills as a librettist in readiness for the larger project. The first version of Ariadne auf Naxos was, indeed, completed in 1912, but Hofmannsthal was still not ready to put pen to paper on the next opera. A trip to Italy was planned in the spring of 1913—a rare extended meeting between Strauss and Hofmannsthal—in which librettist and composer further developed ideas for the new work. Hofmannsthal’s progress remained slow, however: no impatient nagging from his composer could speed him up, so he satisfied Strauss’s need for steady industry with other assignments.

One diversion came in Josephslegende (1914), composed for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the scenario of which, by Hofmannsthal and Count Harry Kessler, was suffused with the sort of obscure religious mysticism that hardly chimed with Strauss’s own personal philosophy. Furthermore, the unsuccessful premiere in October 1912 of the first version of Ariadne auf Naxos—a chamber-scale theatrical hybrid that pitted Hofmannsthal’s reworking of Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme against a new neo-classical opera—led to it being laboriously reworked into the form we know today, and eventually completed in 1916. Strauss also dusted off his own Eine Alpensinfonie, whose sketches went back to the start of the century, completing it 1915 while waiting for the libretto for the final act of Die Frau ohne Schatten.

More than just robbing Strauss of the compositional momentum on which he thived, however, these last two projects in particular are unlikely to have helped focus the composer’s mind. In reworking Ariadne, Strauss composed a new extended prologue full of humour and quick-fire conversational exchanges. This was an operatic idiom he was itching to explore further (he finally got the chance in Intermezzo (1923), composed to his own libretto), but one, as he admitted to his librettist, that had no place in Die Frau. Behind Eine Alpensinfonie’s narrative of a day’s mountaineering, meanwhile, bubbled Strauss’s own philosophy of pragmatic self-determination. He had planned to call the tone-poem Der Antichrist, after Nietzsche, and the sketches reveal that the final movement was at one stage to have expressed an ethos of ‘Befreiung durch die Arbeit: das künstlerische Schaffen’ (‘liberation through work: artistic creation’).

This attitude apparently makes its way into Die Frau ohne Schatten as Barak launches into the final quartet with a paean to hard work: ‘Nun will ich jubeln … nun will ich schaffen’ (‘Now I celebrate … now I create’). But it was an attitude out of sympathy with the Empress’s apparently all-too-easy salvation through renunciation. Indeed, Strauss’s identification with Barak—bluff, generously melodic and hardworking—was immediate, and it is possible to detect a mixture of envy and condescension in the way Hofmannsthal paints the character. Barak’s sturdy, bourgeois work ethic is built on a straightforward desire to provide for his hotly anticipated family; when in Act II ‘higher powers’ (‘Übermächte’, the Nurse calls them) begin to exert their influence, his concern hardly extends beyond the fact that it is too dark to work and his favourite mortar is mysteriously broken.

Such an interpretation gains corroboration through Hofmannsthal’s clear intention, expressed in his first notes for the opera from February 1911, that there be ‘at the centre a bizarre figure like Strauss’s wife’. He wrote to Strauss a couple of weeks later that ‘for one of the women your wife might well, in all discretion, be taken as a model—that, of course, is wholly entre nous, and not of any great importance. Anyway, she is a bizarre woman with a very good soul, au fond: unfathomable, moody, domineering and yet at the same time likeable’.

Discretion was not always Strauss’s strong suit, though, and it did not take long for him to blurt out this parallel to his wife, Pauline, reassuring her that ‘regarding your portrait you need not have any fears’. The composer clearly knew what made her tick, though, and a letter to Karl Böhm in 1943 encouraged the conductor to ensure great care be taken with the scene in Act I in which the Wife is seduced by jewels and fawning servant girls: it is a scene, wrote Strauss, that ‘my wife always particularly looks forward to’.

Audiences, too, have found it easier to identify with the human couple and struggle somewhat, as Strauss did, to sympathize with the shadowless Empress and her archetypal husband. Hofmannsthal was alert to this danger and outlined the importance of the Empress as follows: ‘She has not a great deal to say and yet is actually the most important figure in the opera. You should never forget that. It is all about becoming human; she—not the other one—is the woman without a shadow’. Her husband, meanwhile, was deliberately cast, to borrow the Nurse’s words, as ‘hunter, lover, and nothing more’.

Strauss abandoned an early idea — voiced on the Italy trip, as Hofmannsthal recalled, ‘in the moonlight between San Michele and Bozen’—of using the small ‘Ariadne’ orchestra alone to accompany the action in the spirit world. He nevertheless uses an exquisitely refined palette to accompany the beautiful, fairy-like Empress’s appearance in Act I. She floats gracefully into a world of crystalline textures and brittle musical ideas (her motifs are largely built round empty intervals of 2nds, 4ths and 5ths, avoiding the all-important third degree of the scale). Her vocal line is unassertive, often simply shadowing the instruments of the orchestra. The musical characterization of the Emperor is no less skilful. As the unthinking husband, he is a deliberately unsympathetic creation. Franz Werfel branded him a rapist, and there is a constant, uncomfortable elision of his two roles, as hunter and lover, that is ingeniously captured in Strauss’s score. Macho horn-calls mix with conventionally amorous cantilena, while his strenuous cadences each assert one of two significant keys: E flat, the traditional key of the hunt, and E, the key of Don Juan, associated for ever in Strauss’s oeuvre with erotic pursuits.

The imperial couple’s scenes in Act II, described by Hofmannsthal as ‘lyrical effusions … points of repose between the constantly progressing action on earth’, tested Strauss’s compositional technique yet further. The Emperor’s plangent moonlight serenade, his uncomprehending questions to the implacable Falcon and his desperate attempts to exact retribution on his wife for communing with humanity: they all culminate in a thunderous reiteration of his fate, represented by the ‘Er wird zu Stein’ (‘He turns to stone’) motif first drummed into us in the Spirit Messenger’s early confrontation with the Nurse.

Strauss was surely right, too, to express a certain modest pride in the achievement of the Empress’s remarkable bedroom scene. For long stretches the verbal scaffolding is removed; Strauss’s music is left to stand alone, expressing the Empress’s growing sense of sympathy with Barak, illustrating her vision, articulating her horror at the prospect of her husband’s fate, and anticipating, with the introduction of the trombone’s powerful calls to judgment, the pivotal temple scene in Act III. In that scene, by neat contrast, music cedes its power to words as the Empress resorts to her speaking voice—a decision, Strauss suggested later, that was possibly a result of ‘a certain nervous irritation in the score’ resulting from ‘wartime worries’.

Throughout the compositional process, Strauss sought explanations for Hofmannsthal’s complicated symbols, yet the composer’s main difficulty came after the Empress’s renunciation of the shadow in Act III. Hofmannsthal later called this an ‘allomatic’ solution—using an obscure word to imply change effected through mutual interaction with society. But such a solution was anathema to Strauss’s own ethos of self-determination. It also, arguably, came dangerously close to the Wagnerian doctrine of renunciation that the composer had spent much of his early career uncoupling from its associated musical apparatus—most famously in the tone-poems of the 1890s, including, of course, Also Sprach Zarathustra, based ‘freely on Nietzsche’.

But there was difficulty on a more basic level, too. In his first typescript for the final act, Hofmannsthal marked in pencil against the final chorus for the Unborn Children the following: ‘quasi epilogue (like that tender “end after the end” in Der Rosenkavalier)’. At the end of Die Frau’s long, truncated period of composition, Strauss delivered accordingly, but admitted major difficulty with the final scene, particularly in comparison with Der Rosenkavalier and its celebrated trio.

‘Characters like the Emperor and Empress, and also the Nurse, cannot be filled with red corpuscles in the same way as a Marschallin, an Octavian or an Ochs’, he complained to his librettist. ‘I have now sketched out the whole end of the opera (the quartet and the choruses) and it has got verve and a great upward sweep—but my wife finds it cold and misses the heart-touching flame-kindling melodic texture of the Rosenkavalier trio’. That trio received its melancholy colour from the Marschallin’s own very human renunciation of her younger lover, a situation which, Hofmannsthal noted early on, had strong parallels with that of Hans Sachs in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

In the characters of Die Frau ohne Schatten, however, Hofmannsthal sought to express a wider truth: ‘there [in Der Rosenkavalier] the situation is a sentimental one,’ he explained, ‘here it is heroic and spiritual, akin to the atmosphere of Fidelio or Die Zauberflöte.’ Accordingly Strauss’s finale starts to transcend the dramatic concerns of individual characters to touch on something more universal about humanity, art and the nature of social interaction. The grand final ensemble therefore becomes less operatic than symphonic; the narrative surrenders to the classic darkness-to-light trajectory so favoured by Romantic composers. Indeed, several commentators have drawn parallels between the upward-striving spirituality of Hofmannsthal and Strauss’s finale with that of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, with its setting of the final verses of Goethe’s Faust, Part II.

If the celebratory voices of the final quartet come together more anonymously than those of the Rosenkavalier trio, though, Strauss still keeps a symphonic twist up his sleeve. The ‘Er wird zu Stein’ motif, which has haunted the whole score as a reminder of the Emperor’s fate, is reintroduced as the quartet begins to run out of steam. But now it does not drag us into a disorientating, distant minor key; rather, it leads into a dizzying series of modulations, an extended cadence into bright C major and a final outburst for full orchestra, which, piled with motifs and dissonances, seems to struggle under its own celebratory weight. 



The sound of the Emperor’s Falcon, represented throughout the opera by a threateningly dissonant cry in the high woodwind, is a distant memory. The ‘trial’ motif, a stern call to judgment introduced by the trombones in the Empress’s bedroom scene, is now docile, gently underpinning the celebratory message of the final chorus for the Unborn Children. Musically, everything is bathed—not inappropriately—in a sort of post-coital glow.


For all the visceral appeal of Strauss’s score, though, charges regarding the obscurity of Hofmannsthal’s libretto have stuck. Yet it was Hofmannsthal’s sense of ambition that drove Strauss to produce what he believed to be his most remarkable work. Throughout his life Strauss maintained his faith in the transcendent importance of great art, and he seems in particular to have felt that Die Frau ohne Schatten expressed this within its broader human message. ‘May your first performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten mark a new glorious blossoming of the opera house for the healing of German art’, he wrote hopefully in 1920 to a colleague about to stage the work in Berlin. It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that Die Frau ohne Schatten’s beauties and complexities have seen it become an ever more regular sight on the stage in our own difficult, ambiguous times, when the bond between art and humanity is as important as ever.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

A Second Zauberflöte? Die Frau ohne Schatten, Salzburg and Mozart

Here's a slight departure from the usual texture of the blog, but with Die Frau ohne Schatten's return to the Royal Opera House now less than a month away, I thought it might be a good opportunity to reprint here a piece I wrote for OPERA in 2011 (it appeared in the July 2011 issue, ahead of the unveiling of Christof Loy's new production at the Salzburg Festival). I've kept the mentions of that production (which proved to be a major cop-out, in my opinion at least), but hope that the article, drawn from the final chapter of my PhD thesis, might still be of interest. (A longer version will hopefully appear in an academic journal before too long, too.) 

This Summer, the Salzburg Festival plays host to Christof Loy’s highly anticipated new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten, the fourth operatic collaboration between Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The new staging adds to Die Frau’s distinguished but hardly extensive history at Salzburg, the festival founded by Strauss, Hofmannsthal and producer Max Reinhardt. A glance through the annals reveals that there were only three performances in the festival’s first forty years (Clemens Krauss conducted the work, using Alfred Roller’s Vienna sets, in 1932-3), compared to forty of Rosenkavalier between 1929 and 1941. It did not appear in Salzburg after the World War II until Karl Böhm conducted it in 1974 and 1975, and the opera’s only subsequent appearance on the Salzburg stage before this summer was in 1992, when Georg Solti conducted Götz Friedrich’s production.

The meagreness of this history is perhaps doubly surprising, for Die Frau is both a festival opera par excellence and a work that seems particularly close to the spirit of the Salzburg Festival. On one level it is a vast humanist fairy tale, yet its apparent concern with fertility, and the spiritual dimension of sex as procreation rather than—God forbid!—recreation, has more than a whiff of Catholicism about it. And Catholicism was one important element of the complex spiritual cocktail that was to make the Salzburg Festival—eventually launched, in August 1920, with an open-air performance of Hofmannsthal’s Jedermann that used Salzburg Cathedral as a backdrop—such a force for cultural renewal after World War I. 

The festival found an additional focus in the figure of Mozart, who was idealized as the product and embodiment of the city’s unique baroque spirit. As a work also regularly characterized as Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s answer to Die Zauberflöte, then, wouldn’t Die Frau find a natural home there? It was Vienna, however, that hosted the premiere of Die Frau ohne Schatten in October 1919, and the troubled first years of the Festival meant that a Salzburg premiere for the opera was never even a possibility (Strauss and Hofmannsthal had decided to wait until the end of the war to perform their new opera, which had been finished in 1917, and briefly toyed with Munich as an option). Loy’s new production promises to explore another important stage in the opera’s relationship with the Austrian capital, when, in 1955, Karl Böhm conducted the opera at the newly re-opened Staatsoper and made a groundbreaking recording with Decca.



The premise for Loy’s production quietly emphasises Die Frau’s somewhat ambivalent relationship to Salzburg. Rather than explore opera’s performance history, though, I want to explore here one aspect of that ambivalent relationship—what might be called Die Frau ohne Schatten’s relationship with idea of Salzburg—and the way the opera, its premiere delayed until some four years after Hofmannsthal had completed his libretto, became caught up with the propaganda surrounding the Salzburg Festival, much of it written by Hofmannsthal himself. The fact that it did, meanwhile, resulted in a retrospective attempt by Hofmannsthal and his literary allies to position the opera within the ideological framework built around Salzburg—an attempt to steer the early reception of a work from which, by the time of its premiere, he felt increasingly distant.

Let us start, however, with the city’s most famous son, Mozart, and examine the idea, regularly encountered in the literature, that Die Frau was conceived as a ‘second Magic Flute’, an ‘adaptation of The Magic Flute’, and Hofmannsthal’s ‘own Zauberflöte’. Mozart’s opera is cited in Hofmannsthal’s early notes, which encompass a multitude of sources ranging from the Bible to Wagner, and in a letter from an early stage in Die Frau’s protracted gestation (20 March 1911) the librettist explained to Strauss that ‘The whole idea would, roughly speaking, stand in the same relation to The Magic Flute as Rosenkavalier does to Figaro’. There would seem to be some justification, then, for the ‘second Magic Flute’ label, which is employed as a convenient entrance point in to Die Frau’s labyrinthine world. But any promise of clarification is, of course, illusory. Mozart and Schikaneder’s opera is cryptic enough, and delving into the sources shows that the elements that found their way into Die Frau had done so via Goethe—through a series of enigmatic works including Faust II, Wilhelm Meister, the ‘Fairy Tale’ of 1795 (recently published, in Mike Mitchell’s translation, as part of The German Refugees; Dedalus, 2006), as well as Goethe’s own fragmentary The Magic Flute Part Two (Eric Blom’s translation is printed as an appendix to Robert Spaethling’s Music and Mozart in the Life of Goethe; Camden House, 1987).

If we return to the same letter, Hofmannsthal is notably cautious when he continues by qualifying the links between Figaro and Rosenkavalier, and Zauberflöte and Die Frau: ‘here as there, there would be no imitation, but a certain analogy. One cannot of course achieve the enchanting naïveté of many scenes in The Magic Flute’. A couple of weeks later, having discussed the plan with Hofmannsthal around the time of the Vienna premiere of Der Rosenkavalier, Strauss communicated his understanding of the new idea to his wife. Hofmannsthal’s plan, he wrote, is a ‘pure, very noble fairy-tale idea with marvellous symbols (from a distance reminding one a little of The Magic Flute, with whose continuation Goethe engaged himself, as is well known). Naturally there are no direct similarities with The Magic Flute, only in terms of genre, but with much greater meaning and depth’.

All these caveats will seem obvious to anyone familiar with The Magic Flute and Die Frau ohne Schatten, and if we jump forward several years to the time of the premiere of Die Frau, we find the ever-pragmatic Strauss continuing to evade unhelpful comparisons with his beloved Mozart. In an interview that appeared in the Neue Freie Presse late in September 1919, Strauss describes his new opera as, ‘if you like, a continuation of the Magic Flute […]. Let’s say the Magic Flute is a forerunner of Die Frau ohne Schatten. It can be understood’, he suggests finally, ‘as having a similar relationship to it as Lohengrin does to [Weber’s] Euryanthe’. Strauss’s early biographer Richard Specht was similarly cautious. He grudgingly concedes, in an article written for the premiere, that ‘doctoral students will find plenty of material for their dissertations’ in making the comparisons. Such an endeavour, though, would be essentially fruitless. (The literary scholar Gloria Ascher has undertaken this task in a short book that does indeed suggest the limits of such an approach).

That, it would seem, puts the matter to bed. But then we come across a book by the Hofmannsthal acolyte Max Pirker: his 1920 monograph Rund um die Zauberflöte, which was published in a series edited ‘in collaboration with’ Hofmannsthal and Hermann Bahr (Bahr was another important player in the early stages of the Salzburg drama). Here Pirker explains how Die Frau ohne Schatten was a ‘new Magic Flute’, which represented the flowering of a new ‘global baroque’ which was revitalising the post-war world. A rambling sentence from his conclusion suggests that ‘It would be something to welcome, if the old and the new Magic Flutes, with Mozart united as brother with the great Stammesgenossen [lit. tribe-comrade] of old Bavarian blood, Richard Strauss, would find a way from the Salzburg Festival Hall into the heart of the new alpine race, and over the Austrian alpine landscape out into the Germanic and Romance world, with which The Magic Flute as well as Die Frau ohne Schatten is linked by a thousand threads’.

Here, then, the link between the two operas is established as definitive and deep-rooted. In language typical of the pro-Salzburg propaganda that was circulating after the war, both works are positioned as central to the Salzburg project. Hofmannsthal had claimed that the festival should concentrate on ‘operas and plays simultaneously, since, in the highest sense, they cannot be separated’, and Pirker’s literary perspective dictates that actual music—and therefore the contributions of Mozart and Strauss—is more or less ignored throughout his book. Mozart’s role as embodiment of the Salzburg spirit, reflecting Hofmannsthal’s claim, saw him conveniently elevated to a position of grace beyond earthly concerns with medium and genre.       


But what did Pirker mean by the term ‘baroque’, and how is this reconcilable with the quintessentially ‘classical’ Mozart? This might seem to be a question of semantics, but, as the historian Michael P. Steinberg has argued in his The Meaning of the Salzburg Festival (Cornell University Press, 1990), the idea of the baroque—or, rather, the ‘Ideology of the Baroque’—was essential to the whole Salzburg enterprise. One clue to its usage can be found in Bahr’s study of Vienna’s Burgtheater, which appeared in 1920 in the same series as Pirker’s book and carried a dedication ‘to Professor Josef Nadler, the “Schliemann” of our Baroque culture’. Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) was the archaeologist who unearthed the so-called Mask of Agamemnon, and Josef Nadler (1884-1963) was a hugely influential Austrian literary historian, who had started publishing his magnum opus, Die Literaturgeschichte der deutschen Stämme und Landschaften (Literary History of the German Tribes and Territories), in 1912.

Hofmannsthal latched on to the third volume of Nadler’s History, published in 1918, with particular enthusiasm, excitedly dispatching copies to friends. It was this volume that covered the ages of Mozart and Goethe, and in which the ‘Barock’ came to prominence. Unlike today’s standard definitions, Nadler’s conception of the term grew out of the main thesis of his History (later slightly adjusted to conform with the Nazi concept of Blut und Boden): that the literature of a nation was deeply rooted in its landscape and the movement of its ancient tribes. As such, Nadler argued that the ‘Austro-Bavarian baroque’ literally grew out of the magnificent landscape of Austria and southern Germany. It found a centre in Salzburg, he claimed, where it derived further pan-European value from the city’s historical position as stop-off on trans-alpine routes.

Hofmannsthal later referred to Nadler’s work as ‘a book for every German household’, and drew heavily on Nadler when summing up Salzburg’s special position: ‘The land around Salzburg is the heart of the heart of Europe. It lies half way between Switzerland and the Slav countries, half way between northern Germany and Lombardian Italy; it lies in the middle between south and north, between mountain and plain, between the heroic and the idyllic; its buildings balance the metropolitan and the rural, the ancient and the modern, the princely baroque and the charmingly eternal rustic’. The litany concludes that ‘Mozart is the expression of all this. Central Europe has no more beautiful region, and Mozart had to be born here’. For Die Frau ohne Schatten to find a place in the cultural agenda that, for Hofmannsthal, had Salzburg at its heart, its closeness to Mozart had to be emphasised.

Pirker made claims for Die Frau ohne Schatten as a work of impeccable Mozartian and baroque credentials that would find its proper home on the Salzburg stage; practicalities, as we have seen, dictated that the premiere took place in Vienna, a city that was increasingly side-lined from Hofmannsthal’s plans for the rebirth of Austrian culture. Strauss had been appointed director (with Franz Schalk) of the Vienna Opera on 1 May 1919, but he was taking joint charge of an institution in a state of great post-war uncertainty, stripped of the imperial prefix and associated security it had enjoyed as the K. und. K. Hofoperntheater. Even by the time of Die Frau’s premiere, exactly one month after the new Republic’s boundaries had been drawn up in the Treaty of St. Germain, the opera house relied on using tickets left over from the old regime, the imperial initials crudely blacked out.



While Strauss did talk of a ‘Vienna-Salzburg’ axis, his commitment to the Salzburg cause was hardly rooted in the sort of mythology embraced by Hofmannsthal, and his concern for self-promotion was never far away (despite Strauss’s involvement in the Festival possibly pre-dating Hofmannsthal’s, his commitment soon waned, and he resigned from the administration in 1924). His main aim in Vienna, meanwhile, was characteristically practical: to create an atmosphere suitable for the highest quality performances of existing works in the repertoire. There was reasonable speculation as to the reasons why this prolific opera composer, whose latest oeuvre waited unperformed in the wings, would be taking the helm of such an institution; and Strauss certainly seems to have been less than sympathetic to the plight of his Austrian Stammesgenossen when impatiently enquiring to Schalk about his new post in late October 1918. ‘Is it possible to close contracts anymore?’, he asks. ‘Is there still a Vienna Court Opera? Am I still from the autumn “director” of it? Is there still an Austria?’

Schalk was eventually entrusted with the premiere of Die Frau ohne Schatten on 10 October 1919, with Strauss intimately and extensively involved with the preparations. Hofmannsthal helped develop, with the designer Alfred Roller, a detailed prompt book for the performance. He absented himself from rehearsals, however, and provided only sketchy materials for helping his audience through the complicated piece. He wrote a set of opaque ‘Reflexionen’ for a special volume of the Vienna Opera’s in-house Blätter des Operntheaters, produced a brief account of the opera’s gestation (published as ‘Zur Entstehungsgeschichte’), and provided a synopsis. Right up until the end of 1918, both Strauss and Hofmannsthal had anticipated that the Erzählung—Hofmannsthal’s short-story reworking of the opera’s ideas—would also be published well in advance of the opera’s premiere as an additional aid to the audience’s understanding. In the event, it was published around the time of the premiere, but there seems to have been no attempt to make the events coincide. Indeed, shortly after its appearance Hofmannsthal chastised the journalist Raoul Auernheimer for wishing to ‘to undertake a kind of comparison between these two things, the opera and the Erzählung’.

This seems perverse enough (reading the Erzählung does, inevitably, throw light on the opera), but  a close examination of Hofmannsthal’s official account of the opera’s gestation also reveals subtle shifts of emphasis and not-so-subtle falsifications of chronology. He claimed that he had completed his libretto for the opera in ‘in July 1914, a few days before mobilization’ and that ‘In 1915 the composition was ready, then the opera lay for four years in Strauss’s desk’. In fact, Hofmannsthal had only completed the first two acts by the time war broke out, the usual cuts and adjustments notwithstanding, and finished his work on the third act not much more than a year later. Meanwhile, Strauss did not put the finishing touches to his score until 1917 (and the composer makes this clear in his Neue Freie Presse interview quoted earlier).*

It might seem unduly pernickety to highlight these inaccuracies, but there are several more apparently minor adjustments, which cohere into a strategic attempt to steer the opera’s early reception. First, Hofmannsthal claims that he did not start work on the Erzählung until after the opera was complete. However, he had actually started work on it in 1913, and it is impossible to put this new account down to faulty recollection: Hofmannsthal communicated his ‘official’ chronology while continuing, right up until late 1919, to inform those in his intimate circle of the actual order of events. Second, when Hofmannsthal quotes his very first notes for the work, what had originally been a ‘fantastic opera’ becomes a ‘fantastic play’. Third, he writes of the ‘similarity of the motifs of trial and purification with the fundamental ideas of the Magic Flute [that] occurred to us both’ (that is, to him and Strauss), but he omits mention of other important sources that were in his original notes: Gozzi and Goethe. Finally, Hofmannsthal tells us that ‘After the whole [idea] had taken some sort of shape, I recounted it to some friends, among them Strauss. I asked him if he could imagine this plot as an opera; or he himself, it seems to me, grasped it immediately as an opera plot’. 

A cursory glance at the correspondence demonstrates that Hofmannsthal conceived Die Frau ohne Schatten as an opera from the very earliest point, but by the time of the opera’s premiere he had begun to see his Erzählung as the more important work. He therefore placed responsibility for the idea’s ending up on the operatic stage—where, by implication, it hardly belonged—squarely with Strauss. The added emphasis now given to the importance of The Magic Flute as a source, meanwhile, laid the foundations on which Pirker eagerly built his own arguments regarding the new opera.

After Die Frau ohne Schatten there was a hiatus in the collaboration between Strauss and Hofmannsthal. Hofmannsthal concentrated on his festival dramas and continued to lay the foundations of what he later called his ‘conservative revolution’. Strauss, meanwhile, fulfilled his desire, often expressed to Hofmannsthal, to explore a lighter compositional vein. His major scores of the early 1920s were the domestic comedy Intermezzo (1918-24) and the ill-advised ballet Schlagobers (1921-22), in which, one could say, he reduced Austrian culture to little more than a series of pirouetting pastries. Collaboration resumed with Die Aegyptische Helena (1923-27); but music, so essential to the original conception of Die Frau ohne Schatten, was here to take on a role closer to accompaniment. 

That, at least, seems to have been Hofmannsthal’s idea, expressed in an introductory essay to Helena that includes an imagined conversation between him and Strauss. Here we see more of the blurring of mediums familiar from the Salzburg writings as Hofmannsthal describes the expressive power of Shakespeare’s language: ‘With him, the word always conveys expression, never information. In this sense, all of Shakespeare’s plays are operas’. Hofmannsthal goes on to explain that all these means are now also at his disposal. The response he imagines from Strauss, clearly feeling a little disenfranchised by this idea, has an air of desperation: ‘But these are my means; indeed, these are the artistic means of the musician!’.

Die Frau ohne Schatten brought an important stage in Hofmannsthal’s career to an end. The period following his renunciation of poetry (as expressed in the famous ‘Chandos Letter’ of 1902), saw him seek alliance with the other arts to recapture the power he felt his own words had lost. Die Frau was the culmination of this undertaking: the libretto sought to emulate Goethe’s attempts in the medium, which, as Hofmannsthal put it, ‘call out with outstretched hands for inspired and exalted music’. Bolstered by his own project for post-war cultural renewal, however, Hofmannsthal felt he had now started to recapture the musical qualities of his own language. As such, Strauss’s vast score for Die Frau ohne Schatten, designed to fill in the considerable gaps in Hofmannsthal’s text, was, in theory at least, made redundant by Hofmannsthal’s new-found self-sufficiency.

Die Frau ohne Schatten—what Strauss called his child of sorrow’—had suffered at the hands of war, condemned to be first performed in a world unimaginably different from that in which it was conceived. But it was also drawn into the complex ideological vortex surrounding the Salzburg Festival. Complaints that Strauss’s score was an unwieldy embarrass de richesse were compounded by a shift in Hofmannsthal’s own conception of music’s role in opera, as well as a retrospective desire that it emulate Mozart. And when, for example, Peter Conrad writes that in Die Frau ohne Schatten ‘Mozart falls to earth and is deafened by Wagner’, he shows how the last of these ideas, at least, continued to resonate through later assessments of the work.

Strauss’s score, of course, does have its faults, many of which were acknowledged by the composer himself; and Hofmannsthal should perhaps not be blamed for joining a distinguished tradition of artists who sought to steer posterity’s view of their work. Nevertheless, it is important to remember how the ideological aspects of Die Frau’s early reception left traces on the way we view the work today. As it returns to Salzburg, then, let us bear in mind how this tradition has denied some of its richness. Indeed, we might find that Loy, in emphasising the work’s links to Vienna, will help free this ‘last Romantic opera’ of the ideological baggage it inadvertently accrued in the first years of the Austrian Republic.





* It is worth emphasising the opera’s chronology to point out that, at least in terms of Hofmannsthal’s libretto, Die Frau ohne Schatten can hardly be counted as the ‘war-time’ work it is often characterised as.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Peter Grimes (ENO)

The anniversary circus has moved on, and some might have wondered about ENO's programming when it saved this first revival of David Alden's Peter Grimes until 2014 (perhaps that means there's a load of Strauss waiting in 2015, but I suspect not). But this is a production that needs no special pleading, no lashing to the anniversary bandwagon--no anything, in fact, beyond its own intense focus and conviction. Why, and how, I couldn't help wondering, could a company that can produce an operatic evening of such overwhelming, visceral brilliance as this also have been responsible for such a bloated, painfully untheatrical pre-Christmas turkey as brother Christopher Alden's Die Fledermaus. Such flops are explained away as collateral in the battle for innovation and distinctiveness, but surely opera is not an art-form that can sustain that sort of numbers game.

But that, I suppose, is a question for another day. So back to the matter at hand, a Grimes that momentarily blew any concerns--indeed, any thoughts unrelated to the drama in question--out of one's mind. I'd missed the production's first run, as well as its 2012 Proms transfer, but had been lucky enough to catch Stuart Skelton's Grimes with the LPO in the autumn. There the rare combination of heft and beauty in the voice was what struck me primarily, along with his willingness to allow some necessary ugliness in during moments of unbearable intensity.

On stage, particularly within the cold, primal expanse of emptiness Alden gives him for his 'mad scene' here, the vocal performance is married to an entirely convincing, disturbing and heart-breaking characterization: here's a Grimes with some child-like innocence (although not innocence in the way that the blandly exonerating blurb on ENO's website might try to imply), a touching inability to negotiate village politics, and an unawareness of the need to do so. It was a subtle, intelligent portrayal, as well as being a stonkingly well sung one. (One great triumph of ENO's, incidentally, is the fact that it has made itself such a home-from-home for Skelton, while the Royal Opera seems entirely content to ignore his presence.)

But the whole cast was of a remarkably high quality. In her ENO debut, Elza van den Heever brought a welcome spinto steel to Ellen Orford, her strength and resolve making her final surrender to emotion all the more powerful. Iain Paterson turned in a beautifully subtle performance as Balstrode, smooth-sung, civilised and calmly melancholic. Felicity Palmer brought brilliant incisiveness to the meddling Mrs Sedley and Rebecca de Pont Davies lorded over her scenes as a gloriously strange Auntie (in Brigitte Reiffensthuel's costume, this was Auntie as limping, exaggerated Weimar-era cabaret MC). Rhian Lois and Mary Bevan, as the two Nieces, continued the weird, dream-like theme: matching school girls with matching rag dolls and synchronised choreography. Matthew Best (Swallow), Timothy Robinson (Revd Adams), Leigh Melrose (a spivvy Ned Keene), Michael Colvin (Bob Boles) and Matthew Treviño (impressive, in his ENO debut, as Hobson) constituted the rest of Alden's vivid, disturbing residents of the Borough.

Indeed, although on paper the eccentricities of the production (updated to the time, roughly, of the work's composition) might seem to run counter to the simplicity of the folk portrayed in the opera (and there are a couple of awkward anachronisms), the director manages to introduce enough to give an extra sense of the creepy, hallucinatory bizarre to ramp up the psychological tension, but without ever toppling over into parody. In Paul Steinberg's stark, unconsoling sets, Alden manages to create an overwhelming sense of theatrical intensity, helped by detailed, tight Personenregie and universally excellent acting.

But it would all add up to nothing without the powerful work of the ENO chorus--implacable, threatening and terrifyingly single-minded and purposeful--and the orchestra under Ed Gardner, who, shortly after his replacement was announced, seemed keen to remind us just what we'll be missing. His reading was fiercely controlled but beautifully nuanced, the tension maintained with absolute precision; and the orchestra played out of their skins. This was ENO at its best.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Two Saxon Elektras

This time last week I was arriving in Leipzig, ready for a weekend of Saxon Straussery; or should that be Straussian Saxonary? Either way, it amounted to two performances of Elektra in two days, the first at Oper Leipzig, the second at the magnificent Semperoper in Dresden. My review for the Spectator's here, so I won't go into any more detail in this slightly picture-heavy post, apart from perhaps to continue my nascent paean to the Semperoper itself.


Having heard some concerts there in previous years, as well as Thielemann conducting Lohengrin there last January, I already knew about the fabulous acoustic. (I can't remember off the top of my head all the details of the pre-history of Wagner's Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, but surely the very broad stalls area in Dresden was an influence; and Semper was heavily involved in the abandoned plans for a Wagner theatre in Munich.) But still, to hear the Strauss's score was something special;  today, incidentally, marks exactly 105 years since Elektra was premiered there). And Evelyn Herlitzius's much-touted Elektra lived up to the hype. (Here's a bit of it, in what looks like a somewhat 'unofficial' film).


And here's a taste of the reaction it elicited.


Fewer pictures from Leipzig, I'm afraid. But I did manage to get this snap from its enormous railway station, the world's largest by floor area, Wikipedia kindly informs me.


It was taken, incidentally, the morning after a very nice meal in the same Ecke of Zum [arabischen] Coffe Baum (one of the two oldest coffee houses in Europe--I hope you're keeping up with all these superlatives) that Schumann and his pals used to frequent.

I hope to be back in Leipzig later in the year, where in a genuinely intriguing piece of programming they'll be running their new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten alongside  reruns of last year's Die Feen: two works loosely based on the same Gozzi source which tell us, as I suggested after last year's Chelsea Opera Group performance of the Wagner, a great deal about their respective creators.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Manon (ROH)

I probably shouldn't admit this, given that all-embracing knowledge (or at least a decent pretence of it) might be seen as a prerequisite of any critic's claim to authority, but this was the first time I'd seen Manon in the theatre. Indeed, it was the first time I'd listened to it all the way through; I'd tried to give it a listen on CD a couple of times but had never been been drawn in (I'd picked up the Pappano recording cheap years ago, although have now, at someone's recommendation, ordered the classic EMI Monteux, with De Los Angeles, to supplement it). I think I only ever got as far as Act 4, little realising what lay in store in Act 5. My impression from those abandoned listenings was of a score that was decorous when I wanted it to get down and dirty.

Ermonela Jaho in Manon at the Royal Opera House (photo: Bill Cooper)



The period trappings, rather than showing Massenet's mastery in mixing historical colour with modern, direct emotion (as at least two of the Royal Opera programme's essays so eloquently explained it did) seemed merely to hold up the action--literal and psychological; the big tunes, it felt to me, were wheeled out at strategic intervals--and with no little cynicism--to yank the heartstrings and loosen the tear ducts. I missed the more exquisitely tortured emotion of Werther (Charlotte's 'Va! Laisse couler mes larmes' gets me every time, and I might as well use this as an excuse to post a link).



I also missed the lavishly overheated eroticism of Thaïs, whose heroine makes much more of an art-form of her glorious self-obsession and vanity (I was blown away by the piece in concert in Edinburgh a couple of years ago, when Andrew Davis really found the drama behind the beauty, in a way that Yves Abel's rather limper conducting on Renée Fleming's Decca recording doesn't).

My impression was that Manon was similar to Hérodiade in never quite hitting the spot. Part of the problem might be Manon's place as the quintessential fallen women, whose trajectory from innocence to disgrace now seems all too automatic and paradigmatic, risking becoming more a parable (laced, of course, with some pretty questionable misogyny) than a drama; Verdi's Violetta shows us how much more tragic such a demise can be when its reasons are more clearly delineated, the blame more clearly apportioned.

Manon's position within the complex generic taxonomy of 19th-century opera in France was also a problem for me, and I feel the opéra-comique elements do risk getting in the way, rather than adding important complexity and contrast (or maybe I'm just yet to succumb fully to operatic francophilia). Certinaly Laurent Pelly's stylish production at the Royal Opera didn't really help me in this regard, grasping every available opportunity for comique gestures: synchronised dance moves from the chorus, Des Grieux raising his hands in mock boxing pose when his garrett idyll faced disturbance in Act 2. It all meant that the tragedy had to work harder to assert itself. As did the fact that I never really felt as though the love between Manon and Des Grieux--admittedly fast-tracked unrealistically in Act 1 from first meeting, via declaration, to elopement--really established itself.

Ermonela Jaho and Matthew Polenzani (Photo: Bill Cooper) 
This, in part, must be down to Ermonela Jaho as Manon. The Albanian soprano acts well and looks fantastic, but the voice just never displays the sort of sensual allure that must be essential to establishing the character in everyone's hearts. Her French isn't great, either, notably so in a cast that managed to get a lot of the words across. She managed several affecting moments in isolation (which brought back memories of her shattering, if also rather vocally underpowered, Suor Angelica a couple of years ago), but the cumulative effect wasn't what I think it should have been: Act 5 was undeniably powerful, but seemed to be so in isolation, rather than serving as the culmination of a long evening (with two intervals, the whole thing lasted a hefty 4 hours).
Matthew Polenzani was better up to the challenges of Des Grieux, singing with plenty of style and melting pianissimos; there were times when I longed for a little tighter focus in the sound itself, but this was some classy singing. There was plenty of good singing from the rest of the extended cast, too (William Shimmell, in particular, certainly made the most of old De Brétigny), and the Royal Opera House orchestra played beautifully for Emmanuel Villaume. 

And what about Manon itself? By the end of the evening I could feel my resolve and my perhaps-too-hastily-formed critical view beginning to weaken. The two lovers in the performance (the second in the run) certainly did win me over in the final act, and they're only going to get better as the run progresses. (Aylin Pérez will no doubt bring a different colour to the heroine when she sings takes over for the final two performances.) The work's seductiveness is such, though, that I'm wondering if I should maybe try and catch it again in this run, you know, just to be 100% sure I don't like it.