Hallelujah, after 34 years Richard Strauss´ "Die Frau ohen Schatten" ("The woman without a shadow") is back. It is his most complex score, although not the most radical (that is the privilege of "Elektra") nor the one that is closer to the hearts of the opera lover ("Der Rosenkavalier", of course). Written in a war year (1915) the difficult circumstances postponed the premiere until 1919 (in Vienna). Buenos Aires had to wait until 1949 (conductor Erich Kleiber), and it was revived in 1965 and 1970 (led by Leitner); the last one was seen in 1979 (conductor Janowski).
It has a particularly convoluted symbolic libretto by Strauss´ habitual collaborator, Hugo Von Hoffmannsthal. It is a timely plea for maternity: the shadow is the ability to bear children. It mixes the worlds of spirits and earth, the latter subdivided between men and animals. The Spirit world is ruled by Keikobad, who never appears but whose influence is felt at several crucial moments. His daughter, the Empress, had the ability to assume different forms; she was captured in the guise of a gazelle by the Emperor, and in his arms she became a woman. The "Amme" (wet nurse) of the Empress has the task of providing a shadow to the Empress, and the time is running out: if in three days she doesn´t get it, the Emperor will turn to stone and she will return to Keikobad´s realm.
The only solution is to obtain it descending to the world of human beings: Barak the dyer and the dyer´s wife (no name). She is a shrew, he is too resigned; she is tempted by the "Amme" to have riches and lovers; she tells Barak that she has a lover; he wants to kill her, although she exclaims that she lied, but a cataclysm (Keikobad) destroys their house and send them to different subterranean caverns. In the final act the central point is that the Empress refuses to obtain her happiness by robbing the dyer´s wife of a shadow; Keikobad recompenses her act of renouncement by giving her one, the Emperor recovers (he was almost turned to stone), the Amme is sent to the world of men (which she hates), and the dyer and his wife are reconciled; the voices of the unborn celebrate the happy ending.
The music is of enormous complexity, taking from Wagner the Leitmotiven idea (there are no less than fifty of these "leading motives", those of Keikobad and of petrification being particularly strong). The orchestration is gigantic (at least 120 players plus a stage band -reduced at the Colón- and enormous percussion). The five principals have Wagnerian requirements in range and volume. The score lasts almost 3 hours and a half, though with some habitual cuts (especially in the Third Act) it is trimmed to 3 hs. ten (they did this at the Colón). As it stands "Frau..." is considered one of the greatest challenges of the repertoire and only first-rate houses can face it.
The good news is that our theatre could do it, in the context of an unfinished Colón that still does many production things outside at the so-called La nube in Belgrano, though since last year there are also workshops below the Plaza del Vaticano.
Further good news: the Colón Orchestra under its new Principal Conductor Ira Levin did a fine job and is now a very respectable outfit after years of substandard results. The score is extremely difficult and there was memorable playing from the trombones or the concertino and the first cello; furthermore, the music in the hands of Levin flowed swiftly and convincingly, providing stunning moments as well as subtle filigrees.
And the cast was well chosen, though not ideally. I single out the ladies, and particularly Iris Vermilion as the Amme, giving the malevolent character with admirable perspicacity and singing with total command of the whole register, that goes from very high (for a mezzo) to very low (like a contralto). As for the other leads, Manuela Uhl (debut) and Elena Pankratova (Dyer´s Wife) did well. Uhl is very beautiful and she sings with great concentration; however, the very high top notes give her trouble although she manages them tollerably. Pankratova had curiously sung here in a diametrically opposed role, Alice in Verdi´s "Falstaff". She now showed stamina and volume in a very heavy role; although marked with excessive vulgarity by the producer, she gave us this unsympatheric character with truth, and blessedly with a sane timbre, not with the excessive asperity some singers adopt in this part: the music is harsh enough without adding to it.
The men were less interesting, apart from the excellent Jochen Kupfer (Messenger of the Spirits). Jukka Rasilainen, as happened with his Wotan last year, is workmanlike but cold, lacking in warmth, and Barak without that quality doesn´t come to life. The Emperor is one of those high, shouty tenor roles that few do well; Stephen Gould (debut), a huge man of vast girth, can sing the part, but he lacks line and charm.
The smaller parts were well taken by local artists, especially Barak´s brothers (Mario De Salvo, Emiliano Bulacios and Sergio Spina), the unseen Falcon (Victoria Gaeta), the Voice from On High (Alejandra Malvino), Pablo Sánchez (Apparition of a Youth) and Marisú Pavón (the Temple Guardian). The Children´s and Mixed Choirs were alright (César Bustamante and Miguel Martínez). I disagree with the magnifying microphones for the offstage voices.
On the bad news side: the production of De Nederlandse Opera Amsterdam, which made me long for Roberto Oswald´s superb stage designs. Producer Oscar Homoki and stage and costume designer Wolfgang Gussmann provided a unit set of walls with cabalistic signs in black and white, extended to characters from the spirit world. Yellow is for humans, blue for the Emperor, red for the falcon. The difficult requirements are simply ignored (no cataclysm, no caver, no sword, etc.). Voyeurism is everywhere, ruining intimate scenes. Not my cup of tea.