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A cult favorite's rousing success

Civic Opera House
11/16/2007 -  & 20, 26, 30 November, 4, 8, 12, 16 and 20 December
Richard Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten

Deborah Voigt (Empress), Robert Dean Smith (Emperor), Jill Grove (Nurse), Christine Brewer (Dyer's Wife), Franz Hawlata (Barak), Quinn Kelsey (Spirit Messenger), Stacey Tappan (Voice of the Falcon, Guardian of the Temple), Daniel Sutin (One-Eyed Brother), Andrew Funk (One-Armed Brother), John Easterlin (Hunchbacked Brother), Bryan Griffin (Apparition of a Young Man), Meredith Arwady (Voice from Above)

Paul Curran (Stage Director), Kevin Knight (Set and Costume Designer), David Jacques (Lighting Designer)

Sir Andrew Davis (Conductor), Donald Nally (Chorus Master)

Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Lyric Opera’s fourth presentation of the season is a successful new staging of Richard Straus’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. Director Paul Curran and designer Kevin Knight have managed to devise a production that rises to the work’s many daunting challenges

This is Sir Andrew Davis’s first time conducting this work, but his experience with Strauss goes back a long way and the work moves majestically along as it should. The five main roles constitute a cast that would be hard to match anywhere.

Making her debut in the role and at Lyric Opera is Christine Brewer as the Dyer’s Wife. The program notes state that, in the wrong hands, this character “can emerge simply as a nag or a harridan”. No such danger here. Brewer portrays a woman torn in many directions and understandably reaching the end of her tether. Her magnificent rock-solid voice dominates whatever scene she is in. She receives the greatest audience acclaim for her performance and deservedly so. As one would expect, Deborah Voigt’s brilliant voice brings luster to the Empress. Jill Grove has almost too beautiful a voice as the Nurse - here is definitely a singer in her prime.

Robert Dean Smith has a bit of a tentative start in the first scene and his matter-of-fact presence is somehow not imperial enough. He gets full marks for bravery, however, by making his Act II entrance from high in the flies while seated on a horse (no, not a real horse). Then in this, his biggest scene, his voice soars majestically out into the huge auditorium. At the end of it he gets back on the horse and returns skyward. Franz Hawlata’s warm voice is more suited to the low-lying parts of the role of Barak. His tone changes as it goes upward - but is always attractive nonetheless.

Many of the smaller roles are taken by members of the Ryan Opera Center, the Lyric Opera’s training program. The sonic and visual results are positive in the extreme. This program has met with considerable success in recent years, and judging from this production the current members show great promise.

The production team make use of a revolve for the frequent scene changes, which are adroitly accomplished in the times allotted by Strauss in the music he composed to accommodate them. The Emperor’s realm is backed by a huge tilted arc. One if its panels lights up with a gigantic eye to represent the mysterious Keikobad. Black-clad dancers can barely be seen in the shadows, perhaps exemplifying mystic energies in the sprit world. The falcon descends from on high in a neon-outlined cage. Later on, the same cage holds the Emperor has he is being turned into stone. The mundane world of Barak has the required fire pit and dye vats. The two levels of this set provide ample space for the energetic goings-on in the quarrelsome household which finds itself invaded by the spirit world.

Many of the “impossible” stage directions are handled very well indeed. At the end of Act II, for example, the earth is supposed to open up and swallow Barak and his wife - and this is seen to happen. Concurrently the river is supposed to overflow, and this is accomplished by two acrobats lowered from the flies who mange to envelop the stage in a gigantic billow of blue silk. The various transformations in Act III are at one point managed with the old smoke-and-mirrors device. The final scene, in which the conflicts are finally seen as resolved, is especially beautiful, with the unborn children bearing glowing globes of light.

There are a couple of misjudgements. At the end of Act I, after the nightwatchmen’s beautiful serenade, Strauss’s quiet postlude has a brief pause. Since the curtain is descending then, the audience begins to applaud, thus drowning out the final lovely phrases. In Act II, the apparition of the young man conjured up by the Nurse in order to entice the Dyer’s Wife is played by a gilded youth who has obviously spent quality time at the gym. The sight of the two women fondling him results in some unwelcome laughter. A less explicit representation would no doubt be more effective.

A few moments of visual murkiness aside, this is a strikingly persuasive production of Strauss’s challenging work.

Michael Johnson



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