Warmed Over Production

The Met revives but doesn’t recapture “Die Frau Ohne Schatten”

An operatic revival doesn’t always mean that the original production is literally brought back to life. Sometimes it’s more like a gourmet meal reheated in a microwave oven. The Metropolitan Opera’s second run of the late Herbert Wernicke’s staging of “Die Frau Ohne Schatten” (first seen two years ago) unfortunately follows this rule; the performance on November 21 offered only intermittent excitement both musically and dramatically.

The most significant difference between then and now is the substitution of the brilliant conducting of 2001’s Christian Thielemann by the more routine talent of Philippe Auguin. Nothing went wrong under Auguin’s leadership; in fact, he admirably supported his soloists sensitively and worked hard to prevent this bombastic score from degrading into mere noise. What was missing though, was the poetry and delicacy of Thielemann’s reading, a chamber-music transparency and, even more importantly, a sense of architecture in each act.

A more positive change from 2001 was the casting of Deborah Polaski as the Dyer’s Wife. Though Gabriele Schnaut had her biggest Met success in this role two years ago, Polaski’s more sedate and dignified performance brought greater sympathy to this hard-to-love character. The tall and powerfully built soprano, keeping her physical movements to a minimum, conveyed a touching sense of the sheer fatigue brought about by the drudgery of working class life.

Polaski’s warm, easily produced dramatic voice filled out the clumsily written vocal lines, lacking only freedom above high A, when the sound spread and turned blowsy. But this artist is the type of performer in whom voice is only a part of the expressive package, and she won a triumphant ovation at her curtain call.

Even louder applause greeted Met favorite Deborah Voigt, returning to the production as the Empress. I don’t like to say it, but in the ten years I have been listening to Voigt at the Met, this was the first time I was genuinely disappointed in her performance. The soprano’s pearly voice was slow to warm up; her trademark high register never quite came into focus all night long. Yes, the singing was clean and always in tune, with an intelligent sense of line, but the slight flutter in the tone robbed it of impact. Voigt sounded far away even when she came downstage.

I can understand how an artist might not be in her best voice at a given performance—in fact, the surprise here was that the usually excellent Voigt was having an off night. But I was puzzled at the soprano’s lackluster dramatic involvement in one of her signature roles. In the climactic scene where the character decides to act unselfishly, even at the expense of her own happiness, Voigt looked oddly detached, concentrating mostly on maintaining her footing on a slippery mirrored ramp.

I felt no such reservations about the debut of mezzo-soprano Julia Juon, who flung her massive, sometimes unruly voice into the role of the Nurse. Coupled with Juon’s acting, this old-school dramatic singing, with never a dull moment, bordered delightfully on camp—all snarls, rolling eyes, and stage-traversing lurches. Matching her decibel for decibel was Mark Delavan in the supporting role of the Messenger. A sometimes-uneven artist, he was in superb form, his granite-colored voice reminiscent of the young George London’s.

Another returning artist from the 2001 production was baritone Wolfgang Brendel, more securely in tune this time around, though he tired a bit during the opera’s lyrical highlight, “Mir anvertraut.” He is ideal for the salt-of-the-earth character Dyer, warm and unassuming, an ideal foil for the intense Ms. Polaski.

All sorts of horror stories circulated about Jon Horton Murray’s performance as the Emperor. At this performance, I found little to complain about. Yes, he sings in a very open manner, rather like a Broadway performer instead of a Heldentenor, but the sound is thrilling and virile. One certainly has heard worse in this stratospheric part.

Across the plaza, the New York City Opera’s “Turandot” (November 8) boasted Lori Phillips in the title role. Hers is not a laser-beam voice, rather an ample spinto soprano with a reliable extension to the high C and a warm chest register. This was probably the most sensitively acted Turandot I have seen since Eva Marton’s––regal, nervous and always fascinating.

Partnering Ms. Phillips was Phillip Webb, a burly lyric tenor more comfortable in the soaring phrases of “Nessun dorma” than the trumpet-like pages of the Riddle Scene. Oksana Krovytska wobbled out of tune as Liu. Surely in Manhattan, where lyric sopranos grow like weeds, the NYCO could have cast this role better.

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James Jorden is the editor of parterre box, the queer opera zine (parterre.com).

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