Tuesday, August 7, 2007

in which alex digresses a lot

Woo! Ok, so as promised over at MFI, I am posting about the DVD of Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten conducted by Sawallisch and recorded at the Aichi Prefectural Art Theater in Nagoya, Japan in 1992.

Some small opening notes. It's on 2 DVDs split with Act 1 on the first disc, the remaining two acts on disc 2. No bonuses, I believe (too lazy to check? check). The booklet has a small little essay on the development of the production between the Bavarian State Opera and the Japanese stage director Ichikawa Ennosuke. The booklet also contains some interesting pictures (they are better lit than screen captures from the DVD would be), including one of Barak holding a sword, which they've made look like a lightsaber! The lightsaber and the vaguely desert-nomad outfit that Barak and sein Weib wear definitely make it look George Lucas-related. tee hee!

It's pretty clear from the cover and box materials that this is (at least partially) an East Asia/Japanese take on the production. Sort of taking the "Asian Fairytale" descriptor of the libretto at face value. I'm certainly not all that well-versed enough in it all to really say one way or another. Astrid Varnay makes a point in her autobiography that it has distinctly seemed more Western than Eastern, given the focus on childbearing and integration in the body, whereas Eastern philosophies, in her view, seem to put a premium on liberation from the exigencies of the body. Which would be true for the strains of Buddhism that I am familiar with. If anything, the libretto of Frau seems to be more Taoist if it is indeed Eastern. (I should probably look into this -- there definitely is a deity/mortal separation among other things.)

It seems to me that when discussing Frau, there seems to be 4 big questions:

1) Complete? Cut? Which cuts?

2) How's the conducting?

3) The production?

4) How's the singing?

To this I would add:

5) How are the 5 protagonists portrayed?

(This would prolly fall under production if you're reeeally picky, but I think it's a big enough subset that it merits a separate question.)

Here is the cliff's notes version:

1) Cut. Supposedly 20 minutes (cf. Robert Levine's review). No, I don't know which 20, sadly, though Straussmonster might know! :)

2) AMAZING. Like I could not have imagined. I don't know how this stacks up against his studio, but it's gloriously fluid conducting on this DVD.

3) It mostly works. The kabuki/normal person divide is both visually interesting and symbolically arresting. There are no big technological elements (unlike the Samson and Dalila temple non-implosion from the Moshinsky production), so everything works and works well (aside from the golden fountain, which falls flat). Phil Gossett would approve of the fast scene changes and quick on/off stage magic summons (i.e., Young (Naked, Unsinging) Man).

4) The 5 principals are all competent, but Marjana Lipovsek is a nuclear warhead.

5) This is going to take repeated viewings for me to get all the nuances, or lack thereof. The problem is that most of the principals seem to be so hard-pressed for the singing that they can't really do much with their phrasing and character-building. One of the best analyses that I've read envisions this as a kind of warped Cosi fan tutte, where the two lover-couples are actually taught how to be more whole human beings, i.e., their current states all lack something. The trick is how to portray that and maintain sympathy.

Longer answer to #4:

Luana De Vol is the Empress and copes well with the demands. She has her moments, particularly in certain vaults into held top notes. Given enough prep time, she can handle it beautifully. The problem is that this happens only a couple times in the score. The upper middle is much less beautiful and very poor of overtones. She's dramatically committed but her vocal technique precludes facial expression and she has no clue how to put attention into her body, so next to Marjana Lipovsek, she looks like a flopping, ineffectual doll.

Here's a playlist with kabuki actor Tamasaburo, who specializes in playing women's roles, an onnagata.

Marjana Lipovsek as the Nurse is comfortable enough with the vocal demands of the role that she alone really presents a character. The only trouble is that the Nurse doesn't seem to have quite as many interpretive challenges as the 4 lovers. To be sure, there are mercurial mood changes, and Lipovsek is right there with them. There just doesn't seem to be much more than (omg omg omg, humans! smelly evil filthy things. we must wash our handses of their filth. scrub scrub scrub). I think there is probably something here about where to let the other shoe, so to speak, drop when the crazy OCD scrubbing comes to the fore.

Janis Martin sings the Farbering with a lighter tone than De Vol's, but more piercing. I would almost say she seems a better fit for the Empress, except that the higher tones aren't terribly comfortable, and she's hard pressed to pull several together as a phrase when required. The Dyer's Wife as a character seems really hard to deal with. This is what a famous proponent has to say in her memoirs (which I just recently bought as the english translation is relatively new!):

One had to be very cuatious playing the Dyer's Wife opposite [Walter] Berry; even Strauss saw her as a battle-ax! ... As Berry made his Barak the most pitiable, love-hungry and henpecked husband you could imagine, it was not necessary to make the wife so coldhearted. In my opinion, Barak is not so pitiful. I see him more as a pasha who wants nothing more from his wife than the satisfaction of his lust whenever he is in the mood. He has absolutely no understanding for his wife's dreams of romance and a better life. She has a roof over her head and food -- what more does she need? Day in and day out she is slave to his three lazy brothers who are constantly underfoot in their shabby hut; Barak, unmoved, looks the othe rway while they try to grope his wife. In her desperation and loneliness she sends out signals meant to make Barak jealous. And he becomes jealous, which is actually an expression of his bruised ego. The Dyer's Wife loves her husband and down deep she longs for the fulfillment of their love as much as he. But in the dreariness of everyday life, they cannot find a way to one another. All this must be kept in mind when Berry is performing Barak. Otherwise, there is the danger of the wife coming off as a real shrew.

Martin, sadly, didn't quite hew together some sort of character that you could sympathize with or whose actions you could rationalize, particularly with some of the quicksilver mood changes (e.g., sleeping draught shenanigans where she says, BAH YOU OAF...wait, who told you to drug my husband? OMG WAKE UP. Oh, now you're up. Butthead).

Alan Titus was merely competent. I got bored watching him. Barak is boring. But a dull-sounding, non-pingy Barak is even more boring. Meh.

Peter Seiffert has the unenviable job of singing the Emperor. But man is his costume cool. The arrows really make the costume. I don't know if it's because he's a dramatic woodblock or because the costume plus the ridiculous tessitura, but he moves like he's got no joints. The singing is mostly on the exciting side of precarious. At least it's pingy!

There you have it. I'm glad I bought it, though. Sawallisch's conducting is kind of a revelation. The really sticky orchestral masses clarify themselves and make sense. Even the choral voices (unborn children, the women slaves during the first Farberin transformation) sound magical. No small trick. The production, too, aside from being a little murky, but that might have to do with watching this on a laptop from a distance, is really beautiful and works smoothly. There are no hiccups amongst the cast or crew -- everyone knows that they're doing. And if their limitations are greater than some of the other proponents, they do their limitations justice.

Maybe I'll follow some of this up in a later post. Maybe :)

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