Lyric Opera's monumental treatment casts a fanciful Strauss opera in a new light.
Richard Strauss’s myth-laden Die Frau Ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow) is not an easy opera to summarize. The libretto, by Strauss’s frequent collaborator Hugo von Hofmannsthal, tells of an Empress who has no shadow, a metaphor for being unable to bear children. She was captured by the Emperor, who found her while he was hunting. (She was a gazelle at that point.) After he shot her with an arrow, she turned into a human, and he married her. They both live in the spirit realm, but the story heads down to the mortal world when she is commanded to acquire a shadow by Keikobad, the king of the spirit world, or else the Emperor will be turned to stone.
To excise a great deal of the plot, here’s the gist: The Empress finds a rustic woman who can have children, agonizes over whether or not to take her “shadow,” decides not to, and then magically gains a shadow, and everyone lives happily ever after. The score contains sumptuous pages of thick orchestral writing and Strauss’s opulent vocalism, and Lyric Opera has convened an artistic team to make the set equal to the music, as well as make that story comprehensible.
“The technical demands in this opera are bigger” than in any other Strauss opera, says British director Paul Curran, as he walks around the set after a rehearsal like a miniature general. He’s directed three of Strauss’s operas, including Daphne, in which the soprano is transformed into a tree at the end. “This is like an enormous stage musical,” he says. Strauss wrote many instructions into the score, down to such things as the color of the Fountain of Life, and how it should be depicted onstage (as a waterfall). Those directives combine to make staging Frau difficult.
Curran opted for an epic approach, with the spirit realm depicted by a huge black wall that curves around the back of the stage. The wall is fitted with ominous doors; a turntable in the stage has two rings, so singers in one can move clockwise as another group is being turned in the other direction; and the occasional singer descends from the fly loft in a cage. It really is a monumental set. “It’s a mammoth task for any company,” Curran says, “but I don’t know how else you’d do it.”
In keeping with the monumentality motif, Lyric engaged two leading dramatic sopranos for the roles of the Empress and the human woman, Deborah Voigt and Christine Brewer, respectively. Brewer’s character is pointedly referred to only as Barak’s wife to emphasize her allegorical quality. Both women make a point of noting that their personal lives intersect with those of their characters. “I just celebrated my 30th anniversary,” Brewer says, and she understands the harried life of her character. Barak wants children, his wife is under strain from his idiot family and she struggles to keep him happy, as well as herself. Fights are inevitable. “My husband would say, I can relate to this,” she says of the opera. (She sounded happy when we spoke.)
Voigt says that the Empress has never thought about what a marital relationship means, and in this opera, it means having a family. “She’s more aware of other relationships by observing the other couple,” she says. Voigt has sung this role in five previous productions, and “every time I come to it, it feels sweeter. Maybe it’s from having been single for so long,” she says, having divorced in 1995.
Curran agrees with the singers. “This is a piece for grown-ups,” says the director. “It’s about when the ‘catch me, catch me,’ phase has ended.” That’s a rather strange notion for our youth-obsessed culture to wrap its head around, that perhaps there is a time to act like adults, but it’s one that’s worth coming to grips with. “Romantic love is for teenagers,” Curran sneers. And teenage feelings aren’t really worth mounting enormous productions for, are they?
Lyric Opera’s new production of Die Frau Ohne Schatten opens Friday 16.