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Spring 2014

Great Performances

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Wendy Lesser

Die Frau ohne Schatten,
composed by Richard Strauss.
Metropolitan Opera House,
New York, November 2013.

St. Matthew Passion,
composed by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Berliner Philharmonie,
Berlin, October 2013.

Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten (which would translate into something like “The Woman without a Shadow” if it were ever translated, which it isn’t) is a notoriously difficult opera. The fourth collaboration between Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, following on Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, and Ariadne auf Naxos, this ambitious work, which premiered in Vienna in 1919, is variously viewed as either their greatest failure or their greatest success. The music stems from Wagner but goes even further in its dreamlike interiority and its haunting, strenuous modernism; the vocal demands on the singers are profound and excessive; and the plot is so complicated that you have to reread the synopsis repeatedly, even with supertitles, in order to have any hope of grasping what is going on. It must be nearly impossible to mount a production that works on all levels simultaneously, one that yields up compelling emotional meaning as well as complete aesthetic satisfaction. And yet the Metropolitan Opera has managed to do so.

What I saw last fall was a triumphant revival of Herbert Wernicke’s 2001 staging of Die Frau, the only production this fine German director ever created in America. In good Gesamtkunstwerk fashion, Wernicke — who died a year later at the untimely age of fifty-six — designed the sets, costumes, and lighting even as he was carrying out his other directorial duties. Rarely have I known four hours in an opera house to go by so quickly and so intensely. The inspiring Vladimir Jurowski, who conducted the Met’s top-notch orchestra for this revival, deserves some of the credit for the musical success; so do the marvelous soloists, who included Ildikó Komlósi, Anne Schwanewilms, Torsten Kerl, Johan Reuter, and the notably brilliant Christine Goerke. But without Wer-nicke’s guiding concept — without his visual, aural, and dramaturgical sensibility, which colored every minute of the performance — none of these live performers would have had a chance to shine. They needed the perfect setting from which to glimmer darkly at us.

I use the words “shine” and “glimmer” advisedly, for the essence of Wernicke’s design is a mirrored set. For the most part this reflective, silvery encasement represents the dwelling of the Emperor (a mortal man) and his Empress (the half-spirit daughter of a god and a mortal), a pair whose marriage will end in tragedy if the insufficiently human Empress can’t manage to acquire a shadow. It is her desperate effort to cease being a Frau ohne Schatten (and remember that “Frau” can also mean “wife”) which essentially fuels the drama’s plot. Aided by her Nurse—who seems at once to be her guardian, her jailer, and her evil counselor—the Empress preys on the wife of an ordinary cloth-dyer named Barak, tempting her with adulterous pleasures so as to steal her shadow, at which point the mortal woman, too, becomes another kind of Frau ohne Schatten. And what does this mean, to have a shadow or not have a shadow? For both of these women it seems to have something to do with the ability to bear a child, and as such the shadow is clearly linked to new life. But it is just as obviously joined to mortality, death, and the capacity to feel loss or sorrow or empathy. This makes it a crucial element in mortal love—which in turn leads back, by way of marital love, to the conception of children.

All this, in 1919 Vienna, would have carried its full load of Freudian overtones, and it continues to do so for us today, even as the opera’s abstract, unspecified location gives it a strong quality of myth. In both Strauss’s opera and Wernicke’s production, we find ourselves in a magical realm that intersects at moments with our own realm. We recognize neither a specific geographical place nor a precise historical time: instead, this location is everywhere and nowhere, at once familiar and uncanny. It is, in this respect, the land of dreams, whose nighttime context offers us yet another sense of “shadow.”

What the mirrored set does, in practical terms, is to turn the actor-singers’ shadows into reflections. Since the people who inhabit this set are mainly royalty, their costumes glitter and gleam with jewels, creating still more vectors of reflected light. Visually, the whole thing is at once incredibly complex and directly accessible. We know — we feel — that we are in an imaginary, fantastical place because light behaves so oddly there. And where shadows might have lent this world a certain softness and even tenderness, the hard, cold mirror images do the opposite. Especially when they are distorted, as these are, such reflections come across as rigidly impersonal. They can be beautiful, but they are never consoling — an apt metaphor for the Empress’s sterile life.

There is another kind of life, though, outside the elegantly mirrored set. When the Empress and her Nurse descend to the realm of Barak and his wife, the two women walk down several flights of stairs while the palace flies upward, so as they arrive at the earthly location, this new spot becomes the dominant setting. The magical grandeur of the tall, deep, mirrored hall has disappeared completely, and in its place we have commonplace squalor, in the form of a dun-colored, low-ceilinged, narrowly constricted dwelling-space. Its shallow horizontal is loosely divided into demarcated areas for cooking, sitting, and sleeping, all littered with the detritus of life (including, at times, Barak’s useless, drunken brothers). Having made this transition from the romantic to the mundane ourselves, we can see why Barak’s wife might find the Nurse’s offers of romance enticing. Her vague sense of disgust and sexual distaste for her husband becomes aggravated when the Nurse conjures up a glittering youth who promises to give her the kind of love she wants. Consequently, she banishes the unhappy Barak to a couch in the living room.

Does this sound as if it belongs in an entirely different opera from the one containing half-mortal spirits and grandly attired Emperors? I think it is meant to — and therein lie both the extreme difficulty and the extreme triumph of Strauss’s invention. He directly juxtaposes the spirit and the flesh, the mythical and the everyday, in ways we are completely unused to; and in doing so, he makes us viscerally understand the Empress’s dilemma.

At the end of her quest, the Empress is faced with a terrifying choice. She has known all along that her mortal husband will become a frozen statue if she doesn’t acquire a shadow — and indeed, we see that he has already taken that terrifying form when we return to the glimmering mirrored regions from the realms below. But the Empress, softened by her exposure to human existence, can’t bear to win the needed shadow at the expense of the dyer and his wife, who, after their forced parting, have been crying out for each other as they separately wander up and down and across the set. So she gives up the stolen shadow and renounces the possibility of personal happiness — at which point, miraculously, all comes right. Still more miraculous is the singing on the part of both reunited couples, which transcends even the moving arias that have come before. (But then, the singing throughout has been astonishing. It is yet another element that bridges the human and the godlike: the warm yet otherworldly sound of a great opera star’s voice.)

At this precise moment in the final act, the moment when the two pairs both find love, the set undergoes its last transformation. This time it flies downward, revealing a dark backdrop containing two rows of stage lights. These emblems of stage artifice, the fixtures which up to now have created the illusion, now are the illusion — the illusion, that is, that we are seeing all the way to the back of things. The mirrored palace is gone, the earthy apartment is no more. All that remains is the stage of an opera house, as if to say to us: Only here, in this artful, artificial place, can happy endings emerge from impossible dilemmas like these. It is both reassurance and its opposite, handed to us in one beautiful, inseparable package, which we accept with gratitude.

Perfection on the stage is rare. But even rarer, in my experience, is an imperfect production that nonetheless triumphs over its very visible flaws and comes across as a true masterpiece. That is how I would classify the Berlin Philharmonic’s recent version of the St. Matthew Passion.

I came to this performance as a fanatical devotee: first, of the St. Matthew Passion itself (I’ve seen the Jonathan Miller production three times at BAM, and I frequently listen to my Klemperer recording); second, of the Berlin Philharmonic, which I think is the greatest orchestra in the world, especially when it is playing under Simon Rattle; and third, of Mark Padmore, the English tenor who sang the Evangelist role in this production. I had gone to hear Padmore a few years earlier as the very different Evangelist in the Berlin Phil’s production of the St. John Passion, and that turned out to be one of my more memorable evenings in a concert hall. This one looked set to be even better.

And in many ways it was. The starry cast included not only Padmore, but also Magdalena Kozena, Eric Owens, and a terrific Finnish tenor named Topi Lehtipuu, a singer new to me but obviously worth following. The orchestra —which, as is traditional in St. Matthew, was divided into two mirroring mini-orchestras—had never played better, and Rattle guided the musicians with all his usual charismatic, thoughtful attentiveness, moving casually back and forth between the two sections as if he were part of the cast. And it was indeed a “cast,” for the singers, in Peter Sellars’s remarkable staging, were more like a group of actors portraying an event than a bunch of people who happened to have good voices. This was as true of the chorus as it was of the soloists. In fact, it was more true of the chorus, whose wholesale peregrinations and individual facial expressions contributed mightily to our sense of what was happening. If portions of this deployment seemed borrowed from Jonathan Miller’s English-language production, well, that is to be expected when you have two strong contemporary opera directors like Sellars and Miller: in the manner of Picasso and Matisse, or Eliot and Pound, they are almost bound to steal what they can from the admired rival.

In this St. Matthew Passion, the chorus moved all around the stage and even beyond it, up to the higher reaches of the Philharmonic Hall, fully taking advantage of an auditorium that is at once grand and intimate, where the seats ascend in a kind of spiraling octagon on all sides of the central performance space. Every decision about crowd movement was masterful, and I would go so far as to say that Sellars’s ideas about where to place the singers went a long way toward making this production as moving as it was. And yet that very same tendency—his desire to tinker bodily with the performers—also gave rise to the weakest moments in the performance. This showed up mainly in regard to the soloists. There were moments when the gestures assigned to a particular singer were so distracting, and in some cases so deeply wrong, that if I had not been so entranced I might have walked out in disgust. One image I still can’t banish from my memory is Magdalena Kozena giving Mark Padmore some kind of Rolfing massage (she used her elbows, running them painfully down the full length of his back) as she sang one of her earliest arias. Another is Eric Owens throwing himself face-forward on the ground and attempting to emote from down there. And the contortions into which Padmore himself was repeatedly forced—hauled around by other people, collapsed into himself, twisted in and out of various crucified shapes—would have been enough to make me take pity on any performer, not just a favorite one.

But even here I couldn’t separate out what was great about the production from what was repellent. For even these moments of embarrassing physicality contributed, in some weird way, to Sellars’s transcendent and finally persuasive vision. What he was pointing out, quite rightly, was that the tragedy of the crucifixion is an intensely physical one. It is as bodies that we find ourselves cringing from such a fate; and it is as bodies that the people who surround Jesus in the St. Matthew Passion feel and express their distress. Even the Judas kiss—a traditional element which Sellars extended to an almost unbearable length—is a physical manifestation of betrayal and its acknowledgment. And Jesus himself, as he sings, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” (which he sings in Aramaic, and which the Evangelist then poignantly translates into demotic German), reinforces the sense of a human body about to be destroyed, a human death about to take place.

The Evangelist is the transmitting sensibility of this story, and for Sellars’s purposes Mark Padmore makes an especially exquisite vessel of transmission. He has always been the most human of tenors, the closest thing to a normal person just speaking to us. Padmore’s beautiful diction makes him an excellent explainer—the ideal link between the unfathomable mysteries of religion or music and the clear accessibility of spoken language—and my native-German-speaking companions at St. Matthew confirmed that his diction is just as perfect in German as I’ve found it to be in English. But what Padmore also possesses is a profound ability to act as if he is not acting. He is the least pretentious of presences, the most companionably sympathetic figure onstage, and the expressions that pass across his face, the gestures that inflect his posture, seem to be real expressions, real gestures, even when we know they cannot be. In this respect he has the kind of power I’ve noticed in only a few stage actors (Kevin Spacey is one of them): the power to project himself as two separate kinds of being at once. Standing there on the stage, he is both an ordinary person like us and an imaginary character involved in a plot from which we are permanently excluded. He is our intermediary, our guide to an illusory world we can never fully penetrate, and the way in which he gives us that sense of connection is both to acknowledge the made-up aspect and to overcome it.

Sellars responded to this quality of Mark Padmore’s by making him the dreamer of the dream we were watching. In this staging of the St. Matthew Passion, the Evangelist seemed to be telling us about things that had happened to him personally. He heard and saw Jesus betrayed and killed; he felt the pain of it in his own body, and the visceral sorrow of it in his own heart. And now he was bearing the story on his own back and in his every limb, carrying it to us with his entire being and not just with his voice. It was a powerful interpretation and a very moving one, and with Mark Padmore at the center of it, it worked—not just despite the squirm-inducing flaws, but perhaps even because of them.

Wendy Lesser edits The Threepenny Review. Her tenth book, Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books, came out in January 2014; her next book will be a biography of the architect Louis Kahn.

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