Sunday, 12 October 2014

ENO: The Girl of the Golden West; WNO: Mosè in Egitto

[From The Spectator, October 11]

Puccini’s La fanciulla del West is one of those works that, one suspects, some modern audiences struggle to keep a straight face through. The hero, for a start, decides to call himself Dick Johnson. The piece’s Wild West trappings, long since staled into Hollywood cliché, still also seem a strange fit for the operatic stage (it was performed here as The Girl of the Golden West, with Kelley Rourke’s translation delivered in a variety of American accents). The redemptive, into-the-sunset conclusion takes for granted a belief that capitalism in its most primitive, brutal form could leave the hearts of a group of hardened Gold Rush miners capable of forgiveness. That it might have done, ENO’s programme told us, is not actually that wide of the mark, historically speaking. But we still rely heavily on Puccini’s score—so bracing in its wide-open vistas, but also so warm, melodic and irresistibly seductive—to shoot down our cynicism and string up our disbelief.

[continue reading here

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Freeing the Imagination: An Interview with Brigitte Fassbaender

[From OPERA, July 2014, pp. 829-835]

©Marc Gilsdorf
An interview with a retired singer might normally consist primarily of reminiscences, talk of foundations, teaching and the like. Things are a little different with Brigitte Fassbaender, who turns 75 this month. The former mezzo—whose singing career started with her engagement (aged 21) at the Munich Staatsoper at the beginning of the 1960s and lasted until her retirement in 1995—has now been directing opera for well over two decades, including a 13-year stint as Intendant at the Tiroler Landestheater in Innsbruck, where she produced some three dozen shows. 

That appointment came to an end in 2012, but further directing engagements are proliferating, many of them with a distinctly Straussian flavour: next year she’s in charge of a new Rosenkavalier in Baden-Baden, a Capriccio is planned for 2017 at Oper Frankfurt (where she staged a new Ariadne in the autumn); plans for Arabella in Leipzig in 2016 had to be abandoned—postponed rather than cancelled, she hopes—because of a clash with another of her duties, as director of the Richard Strauss Festival in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a post she has held since 2009 and which is contracted to run until at least 2017. To that we can add masterclasses and a week-long Lieder festival, the Eppaner Liedsommer, which she runs in the South Tyrol. She’s also recently served as presiding artistic spirit over a recording, using hand-picked singers, of all of Strauss’s songs and melodramas (for which Fassbaender herself is the reader). She describes it as a ‘personal gift from me to one of my life-long most beloved composers’; the box set (released on TwoPianists Records) was launched in Garmisch on the composer’s birthday, June 11. 

©Marc Gilsdorf
All in all, Fassbaender’s workload would keep someone half her age busy; and she speaks 
longingly about a time when she might be able to pursue her painting more, if something akin to retirement ever materializes. When she was profiled in these pages (August 1981, pp. 789-794), Susan Gould described her as a ‘cornucopia of paradoxes’, and it’s one of these paradoxes that seems to play some role in keeping her so youthful: an irreverence and an acute sense of the ridiculous bubble on the surface during our conversation, but do nothing to mask the fierce intellect and deep seriousness—and love of her art—that lie beneath. Added to this are an openness, and an absolute lack of snobbery, pretentiousness or any trace of the grand manner one might justifiably expect from someone who was, after all, one of the great singers of the second half of the 20th century. 

She loves being as busy as she is, but gives a characteristically self-deprecating answer when I ask what she liked best about her Innsbruck post. ‘I could sleep in my own bed for 13 years! Because, as a singer, you are two thirds of the year travelling and living in hotels, and this is horrible. My contract was for two productions a year, so I had a lot to do there.’ Besides opera, this included directing musicals (she also wrote the books for two, Shylock and Lulu), operetta and plays. ‘I had to take care of the ensemble, and I coached the singers technically—lots of them—and it was an enormous challenge to run such a theatre with 400 personnel.’ The discussion soon reveals a perhaps unexpected passion for a composer, Britten, whose operas she never sang in but which she clearly loves directing. ‘I did lots of Britten in Innsbruck—Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Albert Herring. It was unknown there, but they were amazed that it’s so wonderful: I think Britten is one of the greatest opera composers in the last century.’ 

In fact, there is not much that Fassbaender didn’t direct there. She singles out a production of Les Troyens as an example of the theatre’s level of ambition, but adds, ‘Strangely enough, I didn’t do very much Mozart: only Die Zauberflöte and Don Giovanni and Lucio Silla. I would love to do Così or something like that, because it’s so difficult. But what is more difficult? Everything is difficult in a way!’ She certainly speaks from experience regarding Lucio Silla: her 1998 touring staging of that work for the now-defunct Opera for Europe was, by her own admission, not a great success: ‘It didn’t go very well, because it was technically very difficult. In London [at the Shaftesbury Theatre] they didn’t get it together, so it was a disastrous performance.’ Her only other UK staging was Der ferne Klang for Opera North in 1992. ‘It went quite well,’ she says. ‘I love the opera and would love to do something like that again, but it’s very difficult in terms of audience: if you run a theatre you have to think of the “Auslastung” [the ticket sales]. It would be a dream to direct something else here. But I think it will stay a dream,’ she adds with a laugh: ‘one must have unfulfilled dreams in life!’ 

Either way, she’s happy to continue to be kept so busy after Innsbruck. ‘Especially at my age, it’s not so common that one gets asked. I just did this Albert Herring in Vienna, this Ariadne in Frankfurt. And there are interesting things coming, too.’ These include a new Rigoletto in Regensburg in the autumn, Yevgeny Onegin in Kiel early in the new year, La Bohème in Coburg next June and a Freischütz at Jennersdorf next summer, as well as a Paul Bunyan, already scheduled for Frankfurt in autumn 2016. But it’s next Easter’s Rosenkavalier at Baden-Baden, her third production of that work, that will perhaps be her highest-profile directorial engagement to date. It features a starry cast headed by Anja Harteros and Magdalena Kožená, and the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Simon Rattle—‘a wonderful musician’.  

There are few works with which Fassbaender is more closely associated than Strauss’s Komödie für Musik. Long before her Octavian became legendary, this was the piece with which she had what she describes as her first high-profile international engagement, a Covent Garden revival with Sena Jurinac, Lucia Popp and ‘this wonderful Ochs here, Michael Langdon’. (Of her performance on 11 November 1971, Harold Rosenthal wrote succinctly: ‘Brigitte Fassbaender, very young, gamin-like, handsome, sensual, and with a lovely rich, dark mezzo’.) How does she approach a piece that she has such a famous history of singing in herself? ‘I waited a long time before I felt I could direct it, because your imagination is so occupied with these old, traditional productions, which I had done all these years all around the world. But then something happened that freed my imagination. I saw Ruth Berghaus’s [1992] production in Frankfurt. This was a shock, but a very healthy one.’ She’s especially pleased that Berghaus’s designer for that production, Erich Wonder, has been lured out of retirement to work with her on the Baden-Baden production.

‘I could leave behind all these traditional obsessions and think totally freely about it, feel free from this traditional way of doing it, without betraying the piece. I come from that tradition, but I maintain that you must have new ideas and that it’s legitimate to have new ideas—without destroying the piece.’ But it’s clearly also about balance: ‘there was the tendency, especially in Germany, to make everything like trash. And that I don’t like: you don’t need to. But they’re turning back the wheel in a way. They want to see the piece again, and not just ugliness on a rubbish heap, or in a station. Der Rosenkavalier Act 2 in the Bahnhof? That’s not for me!’ 

At the beginning of her career, she was lucky enough to have worked with several people who were close friends and colleagues of Strauss himself: Karl Böhm, Rudolf Hartmann—‘all those old Nazis!’. But when asked which directors she particularly enjoyed working with, she begins with Günther Rennert, the Bayerische Staatsoper’s Intendant from 1967 to ’76, when Fassbaender’s career arguably reached its apogee—she was made Kammersänger there in 1970, at the time the youngest singer ever to receive the title in Germany. ‘He was wonderful, and I loved to work for him. And I knew and worked with all these famous directors in my time, real opera directors, like Ponnelle and Götz Friedrich. And the young Otto Schenk.’ 

She also speaks highly of Kurt Horres, and describes his Munich Werther as ‘still valid, still very acceptable’ (a recording of her incandescent performance in it, opposite Domingo, is available on Orfeo). ‘But I missed working with people like Neuenfels and Konwitschny—I would love to have worked with him. We know each other, and he asked me if I would come back on stage under his direction: just a small part which he wanted to do as a main part, in Jenůfa or something, and I said, “No, I can’t come back.” Also, Vienna asked me for the old Countess in Queen of Spades. But I never wanted to get old on stage. Sure, you can sing at 80 like Mödl did, but that’s not for me.’ 

When asked about conductors, she mentions three: ‘Giulini, Kleiber and Kubelík—he was a wonderful conductor. But they are only examples of this great league of conductors I was happy to work with. There are others, I worked with them all. Even with Stokowski. It was only once and it was funny, because he looked like a very old woman; he was deaf and blind but still very keen. And when I got introduced to him, he said, “Fassbaender, Fassbaender … didn’t we work together in 1911?” There had been a famous singer in Munich called Zdenka Mottl-Fassbender, and he’d worked with her as a young young Korrepetitor in Munich.’ 

On the whole, however, Fassbaender’s feelings towards conductors might best be described as ambivalent, and when I ask if her new role means a new attitude towards conductors, her answer is brief, and accompanied by a big laugh: ‘It hasn’t changed a lot, my impression of conductors, no.’ She continues: ‘There are some very nice ones. But, nein nein, it is still notable that conductors don’t understand a lot about voices, so their ideas of how a singer is cast or shall react or sing is far away from my ideas. So, there we have to fight together always.’ Does she feel that this contributes to the difficulties facing young singers? ‘There are so many young singers around today, for many it seems it’s not worth taking care of one, because ten others are waiting. So people use them and throw them away. Only very rarely does a singer have the responsibility for himself, and the concentration and the discipline to say “no” to totally false offers. It’s the singers’ mentality in a way, because they always think they’ll never get asked again if they ever say “no”. In a way it’s right to think like that. But if you have a rare talent and a wonderful gift, then you have to wait for your time.’ 

In her own career, when did she learn how to say ‘no’? ‘I had my father [the baritone Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender], who was a teacher, and he knew what it meant to make a solid career. He always told me that it takes ten years in a fixed position in an ensemble to build up a career step by step. Not singing the main parts immediately at 21 or 22. And I started at 21, so I sang every Page and every Magd, whatever there was, together with bigger parts coming up. But the main parts, like Octavian or Eboli or Carmen, I sang in my late 20s or early 30s, when the voice was totally matured.’

There were still plenty of offers that Fassbaender did turn down. ‘There was a time when I could have sung the Italian parts all around. Like Amneris, and Eboli. I sang Eboli a lot, but for Amneris and Azucena I said “no”.’ She recorded Azucena in the studio with Giulini, of course, and did tackle Amneris—‘only once in Munich, with the young Muti: a wonderful, very successful experience’ (also captured on Orfeo, also opposite Domingo). She discovered afterwards that Giulietta Simionato had been in the audience: ‘A horrible, horrible moment! If I’d known beforehand I wouldn’t have sung a note. But then I got asked to sing it all over. But I stopped it, because I felt it’s not my way of working, to jump in every other night somewhere else in this really challenging part; and I wanted to keep the voice fresh and young for the Lieder singing. They offered me Kundry and Ortrud and all this, and I always said “no”.’

Having grown up watching her father on the stage, did she ever envy other voice types their roles? ‘There are two soprano roles I’d love to have sung: Tosca and Fidelio. They are two poles of a woman’s life, in terms of character and emotions. But I’m not a soprano; I’m a mezzo-soprano and am very content with all the parts I sang. In a way I would love to have been a tenor, but I was content. A part is what you make it.’ And the fact that Fassbaender’s mother was the actress Sabine Peters also clearly influenced her artistic make-up: ‘I always felt more a singing actress on the opera stage than a singer. I didn’t want to be called an opera singer; I was always ashamed to be called an opera singer. I was not interested in singing a Marschallin; I was much more content with Octavian, because, acting-wise, it’s much more interesting. And I didn’t want to sit around in the dressing room for a whole act!’ 

At this point I bring up something Fassbaender said in an earlier interview: ‘We Octavians get some very peculiar fan mail.’ She elaborates in somewhat forceful terms. ‘Some of these fans … first of all, they are not fans: they are freaks. They get confused between the private person and the person on stage. They think what one does on stage in this travesti, this must be something interesting in your private life as well. So you get obscure offers,’ she says with a laugh, ‘and many, many invitations for lunch, love letters and even people threatening suicide when they don’t get a response. So I had a lot of this, and after performances, some would follow my car when I went home, and I’d have to do like they do in the films to shake them off. They came to my house in the night, surrounded my house, walked through the fence and looked into the windows. Even once, they pinched something from my garbage and sent it back in the mail. Or they broke into my car—one year when I sang in Bayreuth—and pinched my score. But really, it’s strange, these things—spooky, horrible. But it’s over. Although there are still one or two! But I bet it happens to every Octavian. And it happens a lot to singers.’ It’s not all bad, though: ‘some of them are really nice and intelligent and not burdensome,’ she takes care to add. 

When the conversation gets on to the state of opera today, Fassbaender doesn’t mince her words either, even if those words are leavened by a humour and warmth that is difficult to translate onto the page. ‘No, it’s not in a healthy state,’ she says unequivocally. The first problem regards casting. ‘Could you imagine a career like Margaret Price’s or Sutherland’s these days? And this is something unhealthy. You must not look like a model on stage. Singers are not made looking like models. They must have a certain physiognomy. The dramatic singers, for example, they must be like that. I don’t like the “perfection” and the superficiality: only the packaging is interesting now. And that’s how most young singers sound now. I can’t immediately recognize a singer any more. They lose their absolute vocal personality, their timbre, because they want only to be as beautiful as possible—or as loud as possible or as high as possible. And this is a pity, although it has always been the same in a way.’

Second: ‘Now I also feel when I work with young singers, as a director or in masterclasses, that they’re not disciplined, they don’t have the concentration. They play around with their Handy and they sit at night surfing the Internet. They don’t have any time to concentrate on the profession and learn. Young singers are not prepared enough when they arrive at a rehearsal, because they don’t have time for it, and they don’t get enough sleep because until four o’clock in the morning or whatever they’re on Facebook.’ 

The third problem on the list is perhaps less expected. ‘They all drink water—by the litre, only water—which can’t be healthy, because every second young singer I know has something called reflux. This is the modern singer’s disease. And I’m sure it comes from drinking water all the time.’ And what did she drink as a singer? ‘Not water,’ she answers with a laugh. ‘Water too, but not only! We didn’t drink such a lot. It wasn’t necessary. Now they do it on the concert platform and they put it on their chair. This looks awful; this was unthinkable in my time.

‘I’m also playing with my phone and looking on the Internet,’ she admits, ‘but I’m not obsessed with it: it’s not my whole life. And this I miss a bit: the real knowing about the seriousness of this profession. It’s not hard work to get an opera singer: to get an artist is hard work, to become an artist. And if it’s a fantastic talent, I really try to influence and take care of somebody like that. I don’t give private lessons. I have only a handful of young colleagues who I sometimes coach. Most of my work is done in the masterclasses.’ A formal teaching position is something she tried and didn’t like: ‘I was for eight years at the Musikhochschule in Munich, but it was not my way of teaching. I’m no civil servant.’ 

As the conversation comes to a close we come back to directing, and what her further ambitions in that regard are. A return to Salome is one, to revisit and develop the concept she explored when staging it in Innsbruck. But finally it’s back to Britten: her ultimate dream is to tackle one of his works at Glyndebourne, where she sang only once (Clairon in Capriccio in 1990)—‘but my father was there very involved at the beginning of Glyndebourne, and that was something life-long for him: he loved it’. If someone at the East Sussex festival is listening, maybe that particular dream won’t remain unfulfilled. 

Friday, 26 September 2014

WNO: Guillaume Tell; ROH: Barbiere

[From The Spectator, September 27]

Is there a fundamental, insuperable problem with staging Rossini’s Guillaume Tell on a budget, without the resources to conjure up the sense of scale that was part of grand opéra’s appeal and raison d’être? Take away the special effects, whip away the phantasmagorical curtain, and, as with any Hollywood blockbuster, you are left with a modest little plot whirring away at its centre. In Tell, this involves the love between Arnold and Mathilde across a national divide. It’s the struggle of the Swiss — in a time before neutrality and cuckoo clocks — against their Austrian oppressors that, along with the Alps, forms the backdrop.

[continue reading here]

Friday, 19 September 2014

ENO: Otello

Benjamin Britten, when seeing his Peter Grimes at La Scala, wrote with a touch of glee that performing the work in Italian made it sound like Otello. It’s interesting to wonder what Verdi would have made, then, of David Alden’s new staging of his penultimate opera at the Coliseum, performed, of course, in English. Certainly, with Alden’s Grimes—also starring Stuart Skelton—still fresh in the mind from last season, the parallels seemed unavoidable. And even Jonathan Summer’s Iago shared a leather coat, if not quite the genuine sinisterness, with Matthew Rose’s chilling Claggart in Alden’s 2012 Billy Budd .

On this occasion, though, neither the set (by Jon Morrell)—moveable blocks of imposing, run-down grandeur with hints of a rubble-strewn wasteland beyond—nor, more broadly, the setting seemed much suited to the work in hand. For a start, as I understand it, Otello is primarily about emotional battles being fought once military battles have been won: the attendant peace and lack of activity making for the idle minds that Iago’s devil can exploit; the delineation between Otello’s nobility on the battlefield and his emotional immaturity and insecurity off it is at the heart of the drama. Here he stumbled out of battle less victorious than already broken, and seemed strangely unconcerned by the chaos that—Alden's almost dystopian setting suggested—persisted around him. His essential otherness, meanwhile, seems to insist entirely of a certain awkwardness in his manner. 

Disconsolate and nervy, Skelton's Otello was an unconvincing military leader, and, as a result, his fall from grace lost much of its wider resonance. (Was that why ‘Ora e per sempre addio’ was sluggish and internalised?) Without any initial composure, this Otello had nowhere to go, resorting to strange contortions, furniture throwing and the like. Similarly, with all the loss of pomp and grandeur surrounding him, his fall lost context; and I’m not entirely sure what was being said by having the chorus in Act 3 appear as regulation uptight-community scowlers and tutters—were they to be understood as somehow complicit in Otello’s downfall? Although they play an important role (and the ENO chorus was here on terrific form), this mass is surely there more to set the scene for the drama than to participate in it. 

Stuart Skelton in ENO's new Otello (photo: Alastair Muir)

Summers's Iago was shot through with the same run-down weariness that seemed to characterise the whole thing, often, it seemed, going through the motions joylessly and without much of the sadistic glee that we often see. His voice is in good nick, but is smooth in timbre, without bite. Skelton's voice—magnificent though it is—is similarly short on required edge, making for a slight lack of definition between them. Otherwise Skelton made a very decent stab at the role, taking its challenges largely in his stride, even if his interpretation was held back, I feel, by the production. It will be fascinating to hear how he grows into the part; and I, for one, can't wait to hear him tackle it in Italian. His enunciation of Tom Phillip's workmanlike translation here, though, was impeccable. 

Funnily enough, it was Leah Crocetto's Desdemona (the character's name incidentally retaining its stress, as in Italian, on the second 'e') who brought some vocal edge to proceedings. The American soprano sang the role in a big, vibrant voice that could be exciting, even if it made for a distinctly unangelic heroine. She seemed the least comfortable with singing in English, though, and, like her husband, was robbed of nobility by the production—particularly in a final act that couldn't make up its mind between realism and stylisation. Allan Clayton was excellent as a Cassio reduced, after his initial fall, to an alcoholic. As, respectively, a half-fop, half-spiv Roderigo and a tweed-clad, bespectacled Emilia, Peter Van Hulle and Pamela Helen Stephen could easily have wandered in from the nightmarish Borough of Alden's Grimes

The qualities one expects from Edward Gardner were there in abundance. There was precision and conviction in his conducting, and and a very high standard of execution from an ENO orchestra that has improved immeasurably during his tenure. But, like the production, it was a reading of Verdi's score that seemed to lose the depth, delicacy and grandeur, and which was also short on nuance at times (the introduction to Act 4 struck me as rather unloving). Although this team always brings a certain high standard to what it does, on this occasion I couldn't but feel disappointed by the result—an Otello that, worryingly, failed to leave me as moved, let alone poleaxed, as it should.

[Finally, if you'll excuse me, a plug for the new ENO/Overture Guide to 'Otello', for which I wrote a performance history. It's currently available only in the Coliseum foyer before the shows, and in the Royal Opera House shop, but will be available from the usual other outlets soon.]

Monday, 18 August 2014

Travels in Germany and Austria

It's such common practice to let blogs lie dormant that I don't feel I should waste much time on excuses for my absence. I've been busy; I apologise.

Some of that busyness is related to a fair bit of travelling around. The latest issue of OPERA contains my reviews of an intriguing, often outstandingly well sung Die Frau ohne Schatten (Simone Schneider, who sang the Empress, is definitely a name to watch) at Oper Leipzig; it happily coincided, when I was there, with Die Feen, a work for which my enthusiasm, having finally seen it in the theatre, is now a little dimmed, even if it contains some delightful music. (I wondered why Gernot's jolly Act-1 Romanze doesn't pop up more often -- wouldn't it make a good piece for recitals and competitions? I can't find it on YouTube, so here's the lovely duet for Gernot and Drolla again, which was sung in Leipzig but cut at Chelsea Opera Group's concert performance last year)

There's a review from Dresden, too, where I saw a luxurious Simon Boccanegra at the Semperoper (with Christian Thielemann and his Staatskapelle showing impeccable Verdian instincts), plus a joyous performance, in the courtyard of the Residenz, of Strauss's Feuersnot, effectively semi-staged as part of the Dresden Festival. Hearing the work live has made me more and more convinced of its quality. Musically it's fantastic, full of melody and glorious orchestration, while there's a lot to like in what one might grandly call its 'philosophical content': a rejection of petty morality for a life unencumbered by the rules that contain and control by inducing guilt. (The US-based musicologist Morten Kristiansen has written a great deal about the piece, incidentally, and describes it very neatly as representing Strauss's final abandonment of the Wagnerian doctrine of Entsagung and Erlösung, in which love--and sex--get uncoupled from Wagner's philosophical trappings.)

Photo (c) Matthias Kreutzinger for the Dresden Festival
And I don't think I'm the first to note that, with its multiple choruses and generally vibrant, celebratory feel, it would have been an ideal choice for the Proms this year, even if Ernst von Wolzogen's libretto is a mass of knotty dialect and topical references--topical, at least, if you were well versed in Munich's fin-de-siècle politics. And, as I think I noted earlier in the year, the Love Scene has long been excerpted as a viable concert piece, but I'm not sure I've seen it on a single programme in the UK during the anniversary year.

Anyway, here's the whole thing, in a film I've just found of a concert performance from Munich earlier in the year, which -- coincidentally -- features Simone Schneider, on stonking form, as Diemut. Highlights include the Rosenkavalier-esque outburst of Waltzes at 26'55; Kunrad's 'Feuersnot' at 34'30 and the Love Scene, from 1:22'35. It's great stuff.

Oh, and I went to Munich and Salzburg a couple of weeks ago, too.

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.