Richard Strauss’ rarely heard Die schweigsame Frau (“The Silent Woman”), received the first of two performances at the Falk Auditorium of Winchester Thurston last night, as Opera Theater of Pittsburgh continues its mission of presenting the famous composer’s lesser known works. Much was expected of this rare treat, and those expectations were fully met. A brief description of the plot was included in our preview, but a short history of the opera is in order before discussing the musical magic that rolled from the stage last night.
Strauss composed the opera at a difficult time in his life and amidst political upheaval and subsequent horrors the likes of which the world will hopefully never see again. Hugo von Hofmannstahl, who wrote the text for most of Strauss’ classics, had died in 1929, and the composer was deeply affected by his passing, for both personal and professional reasons. Certain he would never find a librettist capable of replacing Hofmannstahl, a mutual acquaintance introduced him to Stefan Zweig, a well known Austrian writer, and before long Strauss was composing the score for Zweig’s adaptation of Ben Jonson’s 1609 satire, Epicœne, or The silent woman. As the two collaborated, the Nazis seized power in Germany, a colossal problem that extended to the microcosm of their work, as Zweig was Jewish. When Strauss began composing the music in 1932, it is doubtful he could have conceived that by the time he had finished two years later, “non-Aryan” works would be barred from performance in any German theater. It is claimed that Strauss’ personal appeal to Hitler enabled the opera to premiere at the Dresden Semperoper on June 24, 1935, conducted by Karl Böhm. Zweig was not permitted to be acknowledged on the program, and the opera received just a few more performances before it was banned.
After the fall of the Nazis, the work received sporadic performances in various German cities, and did not reach the United States until the New York City Opera performed it in 1958. Revivals here and abroad have been relatively few and far between, but productions in Dresden and Munich as recently as the current decade may indicate that renewed interest in the work is afoot. This renewed interest is especially compelling in that at the time of its ill-fated first run, Strauss wrote a prophetic letter to Zweig. “You can rest assured, the opera will be a total success,” he told the writer, “if perhaps only in the 21st century.”
Even with cuts the three acts of the opera run a little on the long side, but judging from the audience reaction, there were many auditors (including myself) who would have gladly listened to more. It’s quite difficult to step back from such an enjoyable performance and write impressions with any fair degree of moderation and balance, especially when the faults were few and relatively inconsequential, and the excellences so pronounced. The amusing and at times moving opera has been criticized as being too “talky,” and even Strauss’ music has been described as “dry,” and too similar to less impressive parts of Der Rosenkavalier. Nevertheless, the truth is that between the ensemble on the stage and the instrumentalists on the floor, Strauss’ unique style of writing for the voices and orchestra was realized as fully as could be reasonably imagined. On a curious note, the scores provided to Opera Theater of Pittsburgh by the Glyndebourne Festival credit no one in particular for the English translation.
Much credit is due Conductor Brent McMunn and the surprisingly large orchestra. From the opening measures of the overture (or “potpourri,” as it was referred to by Strauss) to the final moments which fade into silence, the music carried the action on the stage quite well, from the gentlest of scenes to the moments of near pandemonium. The strings were especially effective, as were the horns except in the few spots where they inevitably went briefly astray. These instruments in the most gifted of hands sometimes seem to have minds of their own, but as a whole, both in passages where the orchestra whispered or thundered the accompaniment, with few moments of rest, the orchestral performance would most likely have pleased the composer himself. When Mr. McMunn returned to his place for the third and final act, the audience gave him a thunderous round of applause, which he generously shared with the players.
Sir Morosus and his barber carry the larger part of the first act, and these roles were in the exceptionally capable hands of two men who played well together. In the gifted bass, Jeremy Galyon, a finer interpreter of the retired and cantankerous Admiral would defy imagination. He is an imposing figure, strikingly tall and handsome, but excellent hair, makeup and costume designing transformed him into a perfect picture of the part. He possesses a sonorous voice of remarkable range, and his seemingly limitless command of breath control were put to a test that he passed with flying colors. He is an excellent actor as well, and played the many phases of the role with great skill. The short-tempered loner, the briefly romantic and compassionate man with renewed interest in life, his despondence over the cruel trick life has seemingly dealt after he dared to step out of his comfort zone, the final realization that he is content and at home with his life – all were clearly drawn in colorful singing and acting. He was received by the audience with the greatest of enthusiasm, and the reception was well earned. His long sustained, cavernously low E-flat, which fades the work to its conclusion, was one of the highlights of the performance.
Much of the same may be said of Dimitrie Lazich, the very talented baritone who has proven on quite a number of occasions here that he is a singing actor of exceptional versatility. His voice is powerful, warm and rich, and he too presents a fine stage appearance. The role of the mischievous barber brought out the best of his vocal gifts, and highlighted his finely honed ability to stay in the picture without being obtrusive through the most subtle gestures and facial expressions. This aspect of his art was most noticeable in the third act, where the character is for the most part a bemused observer of all he has wrought. In his singing he always displays a sense of reserve, and in the most sustained and strenuous passages, the auditor is conscious of the fact that he still has plenty to give. The role is a difficult one, but Mr. Lazich with song, rapid dialogue and well-paced acting, gave one of the finest performances of the evening. He, too, was clearly a great favorite with the enthusiastic audience.
Julia Fox, as Aminta, “the silent woman,” was fortunately anything but, since she possesses a beautiful soprano voice capable of mesmerizing an audience both in solo singing and the massive ensembles, and her strong tones rang quite resoundingly throughout the evening. The character in Jonson’s original play is a malicious one, but Zweig infuses the part with more empathy and sympathy, qualities that Ms. Fox’s singing and acting displayed with a delicate prominence, if such a thing is possible. She presents a charming appearance, and gave all aspects of the character an exceptional rendition.
As Henry Morosus, the Admiral’s long lost nephew and Aminta’s husband, tenor William Andrews made the most of a comparatively ungrateful role, although there were a few occasions when the vocal line taxed him to his limits. Much of this may be the fault of the composer, as Strauss has a tendency to make the tenors in his compositions work hard for little reward. Fiona McArdle, as the Widow Zimmerlein, Morusus’ devoted and smitten housekeeper, presented a comical appearance and sang the role to the best of her ability, although a little more volume would have enhanced the smaller part, especially in the concerted numbers and ensembles.
Quite a talented group took the parts of the opera singers in Henry and Aminta’s troupe. The comic antics of Matthew Maisano (Morbio), John Scherch (Vanuzzi), James Eder (Farfallo), Laura DellaFera (Isotta), and Migle Zaliukaite (Carlotta) added greatly to the entertainment, both vocally and in appearance. The women were at their particular best as they vied to intentionally disqualify themselves as prospective brides for Morosus. The men, as various impostors of notaries, lawyers, and fakes witnesses at the desperate Admiral’s attempt to annul his sham marriage, were a highly engaging lot. Mr. Scherch, in the scenes where he resembled a Munchkin on steroids, was particularly funny, but all engaged gave a delightful display of ensemble playing at its best. Those responsible for the staging and scenic effects deserve congratulations as well.
The Silent Woman will receive a single repetition, Sunday, July 24, at 2:00, and the last opportunity of enjoying this musical rarity should not be missed.
Special thanks to the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh for the complimentary admissions. Would you like to see more reviews and articles like this from Pittsburgh in the Round? Then help us out and donate to our indiegogo!
The “Production Team” for The Silent Woman –
Music, Richard Strauss; Libretto, Stefan Zweig; Director, Jonathan Eaton; Conductor, Brent McMunn; Scenic Designer, Danila Korogodsky; Projection Designer, Chuck Beard; Costume Designer, Cynthia Albert; Lighting Designer, Madeleine Steineck; Hair & Makeup Designer, Samantha LaScala; Assistant Director, Daniel Brylow; Assistant Conductor, Caleb Glickman; Pianist, Stephen Variames; Stage Manager, Kathleen Stakenas; Assistant Stage Managers, Emily Gallagher and Jessica Feldman.
Photography: Patti Brahim