Sunday, August 1, 2010

Munich Opera Festival 2010: The Silent Woman

Franz Hawlata, Diana Damrau and Toby Spence

Die schweigsame Frau/The Silent Woman, July 30  2010, Prinzregententheater Munich

Director Barrie Kosky
Conductor Kent Nagano
Sir Morosus..... Franz Hawlata
Haushälterin..... Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Der Barbier..... Nikolay Borchev
Henry Morosus..... Toby Spence
Aminta..... Diana Damrau
 Isotta..... Elena Tsallagova
Carlotta..... Anaïk Morel
Morbio..... Christian Rieger
Vanuzzi..... Christoph Stephinger
Farfallo..... Steven Humes

The main event of this year's Munich Opera Festival was the new production of the rarely staged opera by Richard Strauss, The Silent Woman.

Once the Munich BSO decide to resurrect an opera, they do it impeccably -- their colleagues in Paris might wish to learn from them. Here is what they did. First, they provided a magnificent cast to do this beautiful music justice. Second, the top notch orchestra is conducted by an excellent conductor and the opera is appropriately placed in the Prinzregententheater: the theater is not too big, it's a copy of the famous Wagner theater in Bayreuth [the pit is not covered like in Bayreuth but it's deeper than anywhere else], and its acoustic is sensational. The cherry on the cake is Barrie Kosky, who they invited to direct the show.  Kosky will take over the artistic direction at the Komische Oper in Berlin starting from the fall of 2011 2012, he's been producing wonderfully clever shows for years already [never in France nor in the UK though!], and as such he was almost a natural choice for this type of opera. [Is there anyone who can make this sort of opera look more effervescent than Barrie? I doubt it!]  Barrie didn't show up on stage during the curtain calls, BUT I spotted him during the intermission. Proof ;)

Barrie Kosky at the Prinzregententheater, July 30 2010

Why is this opera so rarely staged?
This is a question that remains open to me. After all I've read, listened to and saw... I could see only the arguments that would go in favor to staging TSW more often. The Silent Woman (TSW) is an opéra comique that Richard Strauss composed in his rich orchestral style combined with rather challenging singing moments. The libretto was written by Stefan Zweig (no less!), it's fun, joyful, and if staged appropriately -- it's a great treat! Please read a short synopsis from Wiki.
Then why isn't it more often staged? Like The Egyptian Helen --another rarely staged opera by Strauss that I loved last year in a superb production at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin-- I believe the reason is that it's very tough to sing. Like in most situations with Strauss, good singing is extremely important as it weaves through the rich orchestral fabric.  That means that you need to engage the top singers capable to sing this difficult score, and who can "fight" with the orchestra. You then need a conductor capable to express the richness of the score but who knows how to resist temptations to drown the singers. If I wanted to make a visual of how this (and most of the Richard Strauss') music sounds, then a pic from the Luxemburg garden in Paris would do:

Pot with flowers in Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris

Finally, there're lots of quick dialogs which necessitates a good German pronunciation. It's a comedy, which means that you need to have a director capable of keeping up the pace, and you need to put in a substantial amount of rehearsal time. Now, if you were an artistic director facing all of the above constraints, I bet you too would back out and instead go for yet another production of L'Elisir d'Amore, or some other trivial crowd pleaser. Or you would choose to go on but the risk is that if any of the above elements fails, the whole project goes down the drain.

I'd say the toughness of the score is the main reason why we don't see this opera in theaters more often.

Prinzregenten theater is a little farther away from the city center and you need to take the subway to reach it. In Munich, if you have a ticket for the opera performance on the given night, your subway ride is free. How cool is that!? Approaching the theater I was amazed to see MANY people holding a piece of paper with  "Suche eine Karte" written on it. The show was sold out since many months, there were ONLY 4 shows scheduled and the demand was enormous.

The show is about 4 hours long (2 breaks of approximately half-hour each), the crowd was mostly bourgeois but the show rocked ;)

Now, if you read the short synopsis you know that the story is about an old grumpy man, Morosus, who gets tricked to marrying Timidia  --the silent woman-- who turns out to be disguised Aminta, an opera singer who's as loud as one can be. So at the beginning, Kosky puts a wooden platform on an empty stage -- which in fact is the austere Morosus' apartment with only one bed on it. 

When Henry (Toby Spence), a failed student, comes to see his uncle Morosus not only his beloved Aminta (Diana Damrau) will join him, but also her entire opera troupe which literally invades the stage. I couldn't stop laughing when examining the characters in the trope; they looked as if they were cherry-picked from various Zeffirelli productions: Tosca in a red dress and with a black wavy wig, Violetta who pulls a blood-stained handkerchief out of her pocked, lame-looking Lohengrin with his fluffy swan, mad Lucia with her hands full of blood, Salomé carrying  Jochanaan's head everywhere, Rigoletto, Elektra, Cio-Cio San, Carmen and Don Jose... and, of course, Wotan with Brunnhilde.

Morosus, who hates noise, will chase them away and kick Henry out of his will and accept the Barber's advice (Nikolay Borchev) to marry a silent woman. In Act 2 the old man gets ready (nice suit, a wig...) to choose among three women presented to him the one that he would marry -- all three are disguised members of the opera troupe. He'll choose Timidia (Aminta) who looks and behaves like a vacuous & pious provincial bride. After they marry, Timidia is horrified of spending a night with her husband and the only way to reject him was to pull one of her huge soprano sound ;)

Act three is a scenic surprise [How could you not love Barrie Kosky!?] Old Morosus is married to Timidia --"The Silent Woman" turned into hell of a noisy woman-- and he can't get out of the marriage. She uses his money to transform their apartment: the wooden platform is pulled back to become a background (entrance) and a fancy, grid-looking, platform that is being underneath the wooden one is uncovered. Timidia and Morosus seat on two fancy bar chairs... While the wooden box is pulled up, there were thousands of golden coins falling off [Timidia generously spends Morosus' savings]-- our nouveaux riches have to show off a bit ;)  This lasts like for 2-3 minutes and the general chuckles was crowned with lots of loud clapping in the crowd.

Fancy dressed Timidia gets a "parrot" (in this production represented as a good-looking drag-queen) and her singing teacher comes with a piano to practice Incoronazione di Poppea. Poor Morosus, in spite of his new wig and a fancy suit, is miserable: it's too much noise for him.

I won't now recount the whole story. It's a clever staging that is in perfect phase with the flow of the comic action. The interaction among the main characters is lively, fun, and all the singers are impeccable comedians. It's pity if the show wasn't recorded for a DVD release. It would definitely be a fun thing to offer as b-day or X-mas gift...

It is strange that the Bayrische Staatsoper in Munich didn't insert this opera in their 2010-2011 program. Maybe they wanted to wait for Diana Damrau to come back from the maternity leave and sing Aminta?! If so, that would back my claim that this opera is devilish to sing and not so many top singers would be able to pull off right the role of Aminta.

Diana Damrau

And so I come to talk about singers. Diana Damrau was absolutely wonderful. In spite of her 8th month of pregnancy she jumps, lays down and does everything to make Aminta/Timidia as credible as possible. Her singing is simply amazing. Last year at the festival I was blown away by her Zerbinetta in the Robert Carsen's production of Ariadne auf Naxos, where she sang an unforgettable Grossmaechtige Prinzesin while dancing, rolling on the floor, jumping... -- out of this world! This time she vocally tamed this tremendously difficult role with brio. Good luck to Diana and her baby! [and to Nicolas Testé ;) ]

Toby Spence

I remember Toby Spence as a superb Tom Rakewell in a weird production of The Rake's Progress at the Paris Opera a few years ago. His voice is now bigger and he sings and acts beautifully. He was actually my biggest surprise of the evening. I expected him to be good but not this good. Way to go Toby!

Borchev and Tsallagova [behind two of them you can see a chunk of Tosca and Salomé with Jochaanan's head on her lap]

Nikolay Borchev was as I expected him to be:excellent. That guy is boiling with talent. Elena Tsallagova is your next Russian star who is getting sharper every time I see/listen to her.  Anaik Morel completed the cast with her nicely rounded mezzo.

Franz Hawlata

I left the main character for the end. Franz Hawlata is a superb actor, which is not news. What worried me more was his singing: his Hans Sachs in the Katharina Wagner's production of the Meistersinger [available on DVD] was appalling, his Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier, last year in Paris, was downright awful. The role of Morosus is extremely difficult for a bass and I was surprised to see Hawlata singing it very well. Towards the end he struggled in the upper register, but all in all he was much-much better than I expected him to be.

Kent Nagano

At the end there was a triumph for all the production team members. Only Kent Nagano soaked a few incomprehensible boos, which were covered by a tsunami of "Bravo"-s. The reason for those boos must be related to his recent spat with the cultural/political city authorities in Munich. Music-wise it was flawless!

I spotted two new videos (actually audio files) on YT from this production [posted by Intermezzo89] which I append to this entry. The first one is from Act 2, and the second is the opera finale [beautiful!]  Enjoy ;)


  1. I had the chance to attend the 26th July performance and I can not but agry in all terms with you. The opera was not only quite well sung (the three main roles are very difficult), but the production enhanced the intrinsinc values of Strauss' score. Nagano produced a honest lecture of the score, too. I wish it would be issued in DVD, since this is a chance that can not be missed. The only problem is that Bohm's cuts were applied. It would have been a perfect moment for a reference recording.

    Even though there have been a recent production in Seville too, performances of this opera are quite rare. But I find it difficult to understand why this gem is not part of the repertoire.

  2. Hi EMarty. There was apparently one production in Dresden too, but all these small productions are not of the caliber of the one staged in Munich. It was the top notch cast, excellent orchestra & conductor, in addition to the brilliant staging = one of the best productions this year!

    I obviously cannot distinguish the cuts as I was discovering this opera and in this production it was a magnificent discovery for me.

    Only 4 sold-out shows in Munich and then wait more than a year before it comes back on the BSO program -- it's incomprehensible artistically, it's unbusineslike... Plus, I was told no DVD was planned. ;(