Fairytale, Fractured: Lyric Opera's Die Frau Ohne Schatten
My virtue in rescheduling was rewarded with my getting to see opening night of what turns out to be a phenomenally good production of a gorgeous opera. Lyric, however, should not take my immediately rushing into gushing to mean that all is forgiven. You see, I learned a few days after seeing La Bohème that (a) I could have been pre-ordering my drinks, rather than standing in line like a sucker and (b) Lyric is now doing pre-opera lectures for most performances, meaning that I've already missed out on crucial pomposity that I'll never get back.
I thought that this time I could not be screwed out of the precious pomposity resources that I crave to a unique degree. However, rush hour traffic in the Loop had other ideas. I sailed up the Ryan (which, seriously, is like the autobahn now that the fucking construction is done), exited Madison at, let's say 4:55 PM. I finally made it into the theater just after 5:30 and completely missed the introductions. Thus it was not until just this minute that I realized that I was in the presence of Pomposity Personified: Roger Pines. In actuality, his lecture was quite enlightening, hardly pompous at all, charmingly delivered, and not entirely derivative of his in-program Pompous Essay. So I was informed, entertained, and not cheated by repeat text-based pomposity. Color me pleased.
The lecture wrapped up right around 6 PM (early curtain time for marathon Straussing), so I had plenty of time to head up to the plebian seats and settle in for continuous pomposity until curtain time. I suppose I could churlishly argue that the program was pomposity poor because none of the performers' nor crews' bios had anything at all to say about their take on the characters, opera, or production. This was, to a small extent, compensated for by a very brief interview with the director, Paul Curran, and His Pompousness in which Curran compares the Empress with Paris Hilton and Paris fails to measure up on the personal growth metric.
Frau was wholly unfamiliar to me before last night. In fact, it was so unfamiliar that I kept mistranslating the title as The Woman Without Shame (rather than The Woman Without a Shadow, natch) in my head. And so, a brief synopsis: The Empress
The Emperor marries her after what sounds like an unusually violent and hypermetaphorical booty call (in his Act II monologue, when he inevitably escalates to murderous rage [under the Universal Operatic Conventions Code] 4 nanoseconds after finding out that she's wandering through the woods, rather than scrapbooking at home with the Nurse, he reasons that he cannot kill her with his sword, because it cut the knot of her sash on "that night"). Keikobad, as big a hypocrite as the next patriarchal deity, has been willing to let the relationship play out for a year, but has now decided that it's time to bring the hammer down and dispense some indiscriminate justice on his daughter's liminal state. He gives the news to his woman in the field, the Nurse: If the Empress is not pregnant within 3 days, she'll be zapped back to the divine world, and the Emperor will be turned to stone. And, because Keikobad has apparently read Romeo + Juliet and appropriately heaped blame on Friar Laurence for his poor message-sending follow-up. To avoid any such wackiness ensuing, he sends the Emperor's falcon to give the message directly to his daughter.
With the help of the Nurse, the Empress hatches a plan to purchase the shadow of a Dyer's Wife (the Fäberin—she, like everyone except Keikobad and the Dyer [Barak, who pegs the Negrometer at around new Michael Jackson]—is unnamed, so I'm sticking with that). Like the Empress, the Fäberin is still childless. However the Fäberin's liminal state (between wife and mother, the Country and Western of female operatic roles) has extended over 3 years of marriage to Barak. Given that Barak's brothers are credited as "the Hunchback," "The One-Eyed Brother," and "The One-Armed Brother," it is perhaps unsurprising that she's begun to rethink a dip in that gene pool.
The Fäberin, a legendary beauty in her youth, and now a harried, dissatisfied housewife to a tradesman, doesn't take much convincing. The Nurse offers her the affections of an ifrit whom she summons up from the coals of the hearth. The Fäberin gets one look at his golden six pack and is intrigued by the Nurses's ideas and would like to receive her newsletter. The Nurse and the Empress pose as the Fäberin's poor relations and temporary handmaidens to keep an eye on the the marital bed, which must remain in its be-50s-sitcommed state for three days until the contract can be executed. This gives the Empress ample time to observe what the simple folk do, get to know Barak, and have some rip-roaring nightmares that might well have come out of Og!Brain.
The Fäberin, frustrated by her husband's eternally even keel flies into a fury and tells him everything, but accelerating events to imply that the sale of the shadow and all their future children is already a done deal. At this, Barak finally loses his shit entirely. He is about to murder his wife for her betrayal (with a light saber the nurse has prepared earlier). The Fäberin is moved by this manly show of manly domestic violence (Gag. Please, Richard, work out your marital issues elsewhere) and confesses that she only has every intention of leaving him and motherhood behind for the first sparkly loincloth that thrusts itself into her hand, but she hasn't actually signed the paperwork.
Apparently, however, intention is close enough for supernatural work, as the house and business are flooded by Keikobad's black lake and the couple is sucked into the Earth. Having realized that she loves this new and manly version of Barak (again, I say GAG! to the story, but see below), the Fäberin is naturally separated from him. For his part, Barak laments having failed in his husbandly duties (which, really, is almost as gag worthy as the "chycks like it rough" trope).
Meanwhile, the Nurse and the Empress have somehow been caught up in the sucking as well. The Empress overhears the lamentations of the couple and is moved by them. The Nurse curses the Empress's mother for leaving the Empress with the gooey center that will surely be their undoing. Keikobad is annoyed enough to break out the big guns, and the Empress sees her husband turned to stone and encased in a cage that's straight out of Tron. (This appears to be Keikobad's standard fleshly containment unit, as the falcon is similarly ensconced.)
The Empress is devastated by the choice before her, but given a choice between harming two blameless mortals and paying for her own transgressions, she chooses the latter, deeply regretting that this makes the Emperor collateral damage. She twice refuses to seal the bargain by Talking to the Divine Hand (no pictures, but this was the lone tragic design choice in the whole production). Such compassion and determination to suck it up metaphorically while refusing to suck up the Water of Life literally, of course, turns out to be the secret to becoming a Real Boy. The Emperor is released from his stony form and his Bitchin' Floyd Laser Light Prison and the imperial couple is reunited. Similarly the spirits lead Barak and the Fäberin back to one another, and they all sing
So the story is likely to induce fury in some and despair in others. Y'all get three guesses about which category I'm in, but I won't keep you in suspense about Strauss. Hofmannsthal, the librettist, was in love with the story, and in fact, according to Pines, wrote a more expanded form of the story after he'd finished the libretto. (Also according to Pines, this fucking figures, as Hofmannsthal was "highly strung, intense, earnest"—in other words, ripe for a collaboration en fuego with Puccini). Strauss, Pines tells us, struggled with the music:
He admitted to Hofmannsthal that the Empress, the Emperor, and the Nurse "can't be filled with red corpuscles in the same way as a Marschallin, an Octavian, or an Ochs. No matter how I wrack my brains — and I'm toiling really hard, sifting and sifting — my heart's only half in it." The moving spirit here was Hofmannsthal, invariably more deeply connected with the world of the spirit than Strauss.
(This last I see as Pines' politely pompous way of saying that Hofmannsthal [was] what you'd technically describe as a loony.)
I find Strauss's struggles with the text reassuring, his solutions magnificent, and the further remedies offered by this production to the punk-ass characterizations and gender politics of the story to be deeply, deeply satisfying. It's fitting to begin with the performances.
I am shocked, appalled, shame-faced, and embarrassed at the cool review of Franz Hawlata that I gave post-Der Rosenkavalier. His Barak was rich, fluid, and pure delight vocally (and that's not just the bass whore in me talking). But equally important, his dramatic performance was subtle, complex, and always moving. In Hawlata's capable hands, Barak is dutiful toward and genuinely fond of his natal family, and he obviously struggles with the conflict between those obligations and his deeply felt, if too much internalized, passion for his wife. His situation is often funny, and never played for comedy by Hawlata. Never, not even when he has that benighted and silly sword in his hand, does he come across as a hen-pecked, bullying, blow hard. Never does he go spelunking in the bag full of clichés to which a lesser actor (and, as always, to give Curran his due, director) might've resorted. The resulting laughs the audience gets from Barak are as lasting and as warm and perfectly resonant as his voice.
Next up, all due apologies to La Voigt. Last year, I came away from Salome convinced that Voigt had surely earned her technical stripes and that she could easily take any score and make it her bitch. But it was her very command and self possession that left me cold, given the fucked-up depths of the character. I also cattily cited her age as a complicating factor in selling her version of Salome. I take 100% of it back. From the very first notes of Ist mein liebster dahin?, she radiated light, sweetness, and youth from body, soul, and voice. Without sacrificing an iota of technical prowess, she avoided all the rigid inflexibility that left me unable to "buy" her Salome.
Voigt's fearsome chemistry with Jill Grove's Nurse was also the cornerstone of a wholly satisfying production. Having heard Grove's Erda a few years back, I would have considered her vocal and dramatic chops to be wholly unassailable. But that was before Rogers Pines made me nervous, referring again and again to the "jaggedness" of the Nurse's vocal line, alluding to the character as being "amoral," and leaving me wondering what on earth (or below it, I suppose) could be motivating her. Pines mines Grove's thoughts on the character for his own essay:
As a character, the Nurse is on the surface what Lyric's Nurse, Jill Grover, describes as the "Type A personality from hell." And yet, through that quality must emerge considerable persuasiveness. As Grove says, "If she were singing ugly all the time, no one would pay any attention to her."
True to her vision of the character, Grove is arrogant and self-assured in the Dyer's house, playing up the subtext of the class politics beautifully. With the Empress, she conveys a genuine fondness, but a fondness that only goes so far. Strauss and Hofmannsthal give her precious little to work with―a moment almost as soon as the opera starts in which she realizes that the sooner all this "human nonsense" is over, the sooner she can get back to her rightful place in Keikobad's world. In Grove's portrayal, the divine world is so wholly superior to that of humans that choice is almost irrelevant. Pines refers to the moment when the Empress turns on the Nurse as "shattering," and Groves projects that to the second balcony: It is not simply a personal betrayal, it is an impossibility come to pass that the Empress could be so moved by something so fleeting, so trivial, so common. Lovely.
As for the vocal work, the Nurse is brutally rangy. I wish I could better remember the quotation Pines gave from Lucie Weidt, who originated the role. In essence, she asked Strauss he'd deliberately written a role in which the contralto would spend 3 hours nearly killing herself and surely ruining her voice, only to then have the Empress come on stage and sing the most beautiful piece in the whole thing. Strauss replied, "But of course!" I won't say Grove made it look easy, because nothing about the Nurse ought to be or look easy, but she has an attack so robust that the highest notes and most demanding passages are never shrieky, breathy, or swallowed up to mask vagaries of pitch.
Although Grove deserves the most kudos on this score, any salute of her skills leads naturally into praise of Christine Brewer as the Fäberin. In the synopsis, interview, pompous essay, and preshow lecture, the words "harpy" and "shrew" come up with some frequency in reference to the Fäberin. I'd bridle at this, being a nearly unqualified fan of Christine Brewer's portrayal and the dramatic interactions in this production, but Paul Curran makes that unnecessary. In the interview, he says
Well, after 100 years of Hollywood, it's a very American thing, I'm afraid, to sanitize people — there's a great desire for liking or loving them. That comes thrugh in eery part of storytelling in the arts. The Fäberin is so interesting because she's an unhappy character! Trying to understand her makes us understand the part of ourselves that is dissatisfied with life. I wouldn't turn her into anything likeable —it's more interesting for me to make an unpleasant character understandable.
Brewer shares her director's fearlessness. She is awful to Barak, awful to his brothers, and awful to both the Nurse and the Empress once she is certain that she has something they want. But in the private, internal moments that she creates for the Fäberin, a terrible sadness bleeds through. Equally impressive, even in the final act when the Fäberin has realized that she does love her husband and does want their children, Brewer retains a bit of the character's edge in both voice and body language. No milquetoast reformed by luuuuv, she. As with Grove, she handles the sharp contours of the "harpy" vocal line masterfully.
Robert Dean Smith deserves more than a brief mention at the tail end of the performance review, but he'll have to be content with it. This is certainly more of a commentary on Strauss as a love 'em and leave 'em composer than it is on any forgettability on Smith's part. The Emperor has a shockingly difficult opening piece after which he trots off, presumably to have a lie down back stage and to moan his hatred for Strauss, until Act II, when he descends from the heavens on his sparkly hunting pony. One could argue that this was the first questionable design choice of the evening, and certainly, the plaster pony seems to have been purchased from the same store as the Giant Hand of Divine Sassiness, but I was totally on board with this, thanks largely to Smith's fantastic Falke, Falke, due wiedergefundener!.
And if I may digress for a moment, and I may, because it's my damned blog, the My Little Pony entrance was also practical: It revealed that Stacy Tappan, who sang the part of the Falcon had not, in working her way up to Turandot levels of headdressery, tragically strained something important. Having adored her Bella, I was shocked at how easily her large and lovely voice was overpowered by the orchestra; however, when Smith's voice all but disappeared during the airborne parts of Falke, I concluded with a sigh of relief that there was something sound-sucking going on in the upper regions. But overall, Falke was so fantastic, in fact, that the audience applauded in defiance of all laws of god, man, and the German obsession with through composing. Smith's presence was even more deeply felt in the closing quartet as his tenor slotted into place, filling a void I hadn't known was there until that exact moment.
All of these marvelous performances are, fortunately, set against brilliant set, costume, and lighting design. The opera opens, of course, in the realm of Keikobad. The stage is empty save for the wall forming the upstage boundary. Later, it will be obvious that this is at least 5 separate panels, each with a center door that be slid up and out of sight. But at this point, it is lit only with sharp white pinpoints of light holding steady amid shifting iridescent smears. This reveals an element of the backdrop cutting horizontally across the wall that dips sharply from stage left to stage right, relative to the true horizontal of the floor. Together, the light and the orientation of the set piece give the impression of half-submerged stars, as if the firmament and earth with it, are sinking into Keikobad's black lake. It's a foreboding hint of things to come not just for the Empress, but for all of humanity if she cannot obtain a shadow and become fully human.
As the Nurse commands the audience's attention, we only gradually become aware that light has come up behind a square of scrim in the upper region of the stage left panel. It's a perfect square of light in the blackness, and it is painted with the pupil and iris of a human eye opening from the blackness. Keikobad's messenger (Quinn Kelsey, wonderful as usual) sings from behind this―the iris's perfect circle, disconcerting against the stark boundaries of the square, is a fantastically surreal element.
As the human and human-adjacent characters appear, the light becomes less ethereal and less disorienting, subtly shifting in how much solidity it imparts as appropriate to each character. Later on there would be so much else to see, hear, and absorb that I lost focus, but I remember thinking that there almost seemed to be literal light motifs, not obtrusive, not distracting, but subtle cues guiding the mind to see the scene as set in the human world, the divine, or some dangerous place between the two. Whether that's intentional or exists only in my fevered brain, David Jacques' lighting design deserves recognition as an important player in the production.
Of course, the world of the Emperor and Empress shade decidedly toward the divine, which calls for a more obvious separation between their world and that of Barak and is wife. And the best way to accomplish that is with a revolve. (Of course, the best way to accomplish ANYTHING is with a revolve, if you ask me, which no one does. Humph.) The first time that we see the set for Barak's home, the back wall is flown out, revealing a dozen dye kettles lit from underneath, they glow and pulse in shades of red, yellow, orange, and green like an eerie autumn tree line. It's positively beautiful, encapsulating the Empress's dreams of motherhood and mortality.
But, of course, this is a naïve, romanticized view of a hard knock life. As the real lights come up, harsher and more unforgiving than anything we've seen so far, the dye kettles, which are rounded hollows set into the floor at irregular levels, are revealed to be filled with flat, hideous colors slopping over on to the rough ground on the shore of the black lake. Even the empress herself loses the luster obvious in her father's realm as her robe becomes a dull peasant blue. The house itself is represented only by part of its front wall at stage right. It slopes away off stage and looks tiny and rickety, cowering under a roof formed by the catwalk over it, which extends across the entire stage, supported at intervals by unstable-looking "derricks." The catwalk was a great device that allowed the main part of the stage to always feel crowded and completely without privacy, but still left the possibility of placing players above the main floor to spy on intimate conversations as seen in the end of Act II.
Slightly right of center, a circle of wooden slats radiates out from a low, circular brick hearth. From this hearth, the Nurse summons the ifrit with which she tempts the Fäberin. Whenever the Nurse is exerting her power, we (and the Fäberin) see this world through the Empress's semi-divine eyes (it's a shame that photo doesn't do the set and lighting more justice, as it was breathtaking). Swathes of silk erupt from the dye kettles, followed by sinuous dancers in flowing monochrome robes. As the ifrit rises into view, Bryan Griffin, his voice, rises behind him, clad in black robes and a mask. The costume is similar to that worn by puppeteers, meant to signify their "invisibility," but the fabric is slightly reflective, making him the barest shimmer over the lake. I liked this technique, indicating that the Nurse's treachery could be obvious to the Fäberin if she'd only bother to look.
Act II is demanding with its five set changes, but these are accomplished beautifully and seamlessly through the use of the revolve and flying the back wall in and out as needed to represent the Emperor in the forest, the profane work and the sacred feast with the beggar children in the work area, the Empress's dream in the lonely interior of the house, and ultimately the dye works being swallowed up by the black lake at the very end of the act. (Once again, this is accomplished by strategic use of the dancers covering, in record time, every inch of exposed floor with blue-green silk veils. Marvelous!)
The ideas behind the design of the set for Act III were solid and workable, but we saw some opening night kinks in the works. As Barak and the Fäberin wander through Keikobad's world, they are static in pools of spotlight for long intervals, then rush to the next spot. It's a fine dramatic idea that works beautifully with the music, but Christine Brewer seemed to have some issues keeping up with the cues as the pace became more rapid and erratic. As for the inverted umbrella raft that carries the Nurse and the Empress across the surface of the subterranean lake, I was on the fence about it. On the one hand it was a lovely visual note, especially when paired with the dancers' black, upright umbrellas, which were a key element in the always wonderful lighting design in this act; on the other, I think it was simply two small to accommodate two adult women having the last argument they will ever have.
And then there was the hand. Now, Kevin Knight, the set designer, is English. I suppose it's just possible that he has never seen a hand chair. (In the spirit of charity and almost unqualified love for his design, I pass over the fact that the link provided is to a British retailer.) His design is such a triumph―despite the Dark Side of the Moon neon poles recycled from The Cycle, despite the plaster pony descending from the sky amid said neon poles, despite dancers, which are sometimes tragically overused to muddled effect (definitely not the case here, I hasten to clarify)―that I want to give him a pass on the bone-white hand gliding into view, representing the Water of Life. (Oooh ooh ooh! You can just see a bit of it in this photo, but ignore that scale, which lies. It was much, much bigger than that in reality, and the sillyness progressed geometrically.) I want to pretend like I didn't think of the Fonz and giant foam fingers. But I did. I'm sorry, Mr. Knight, but the hand is just silly. You pulled it out of the fire and saved the design bacon with the fabulous mirrored doors rising from the core of the earth as the Empress faces her fate, but only just barely.
But not to end on a note that could even be construed as negative about the design, my hat is off to Knight's costumes. Mostly there is not much to do with costuming in this opera. The Nurse needs something that distinguishes her earthly persona from her divine, and that needs to be accomplished without time for any off-stage change. Knight gives her a hooded cloak and again uses slightly reflective fabric in conjunction with Jacques' lighting design to achieve this beautifully. I might have poked occasional fun in my head at the Falcon being ready for her Vegas spotlight, but again, the costume gathers in the light and sends it blazing outward again as is wholly appropriate. The dancers' costumes were subdued and eye catching as needed and, alongside Curran's tight and able direction, very much added to the mythic, liminal feel of the story, rather than taking away by being overly busy.
To end, I must give a shout out to the design for Keikobad's lone appearance at the very end of the opera. He appears from above, a dancer suspended from wires. His face is painted in a death's head mask surrounded by a shock of hair that seems to writhe. At the curtain call, I realized that the dancer's whole torso had actually been skillfully painted to reflect a hideous cross between flesh and bone. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the rest of the body paint was not visible from where I sat. But even with just the face thrusting out of the shadows as the Empress faces herself, the effect was chillingly impressive. Which is an excellent summary of the whole production. Well done, Lyric!