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Münchner Opernfestspiele 2010 - Strauss, Die Schweigsame Frau: Soloists,  Bayerisches Staatsorchester, Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper Conductor: Kent Nagano. Prinzregententheater.23.7.2010. (JMI)

New Production.

Director: Barrie Kosky.

Sets and Costumes: Esther Bialas.

Lighting: Benedikt Zehm.

Aminta: Diana Damrau.

Sir Morusus: Franz Hawlata.

Der Barbier: Nikolay Borchev.

Henry Morosus: Toby Spence.

Haushälterin: Catherine Wyn-Rogers.

Isotta: Elena Tsallagova.

Carlotta: Anaïk Morel.

Vanuzzi: Christoph Stephinger.

Farfallo: Steven Humes.

Morbio: Christian Rieger.

One of the high points of the July Opera Festival in Munich was the new production of this opera by Richard Strauss. This work is rarely performed anywhere and so far as I know, the only other production currently available is the one by Marco Arturo Marelli from Dresden, which I reviewed last October in Seville. A new production of an unusual opera, with the company’s Music Director in charge of a cast headed by Diana Damrau, couldn’t help but raise high expectations and fortunately, I don't think that anyone present left the theatre disappointed.

Die Schweigsame Frau
, a sort of German Don Pasquale, is an opera buffa (Richard Strauss called it Komisch Oper), that includes moments of great melancholy, and the plot is a gift to any good stage director’s imagination. This is especially so since Henry Morosus wife Aminta belongs to a a noisy opera company much to to the chagrin of his uncle Sir Morosus, a man who cannot stand noise. The Australian director Barrie Kosky has grasped the opportunity with both hands and has devised a production full of life, colour and invention which would be difficult to improved on. It’s not a realistic production at all, in fact precisely the opposite but it works wonderfully well from start to finish.

A bare stage offers space up to a single window, as did Robert Carsen in his Ariadne auf Naxos and an elevated platform with a bed represents Sir Morosus’ home. From there on, we are left with our own imaginations helped along by Mr.Kosky’s expert direction of large and fast moving crowds of people, and the wonderful costumes and simple set designs by Esther Bialas

At the beginning of Act III though, Ms Bialas produced a real waterfall of gold coins representing Sir Morosus’ fortune, which was so spectacular that it provoked a spontaneous ovation from the audience. What Barrie Kosky draws from the opera troupe is spectacular too. Apart from the single characters around Henry Morosus, all dressed up as opera characters, there is a huge group of extras, featuring singers and dancers, dressed as operatic characters among which we can spot Tosca, Lucia, Otello, Falstaff, Canio, Norma and Fafner, to name just a few. The invasion of Sir Morosus’ home by the opera company is a true operatic pageant: Aminta, none other than the very pregnant Diana Damrau, arrives as Brünnhilde, Isotta is disguised as Cio Cio San, Carlotta is Violeta coughing into a bloodstained handkerchief, Vanuzzi is Rigoletto, Farfallo is Lohengrin and Morbio is the toreador Escamillo. Along with these we also see a Barber (actually a physiotherapist) in a green tracksuit, and Henry Morosus. The movement and colour are amazing and the scene in which Sir Morosus’ chooses a wife is exceptional funny, taking full advantage of Ms. Damrau’s pregnancy. She deftly removes Sir Morosus’ spectacles so that he can’t see her condition. The whole third act is a riot of life and colour. Overall it’s the best minimalist production I have seen in years.

The Bayerisches Staatsoper’s musical director Kent Nagano drew a superb performance from his forces. He has been gradually taking the reins of the company over and has now delivered an exceptional interpretation of Strauss’s famously rich score. The music is brilliant; funny and melancholyby turns, depending on the moment, with acontinually great sound from the outstanding Bayerisches Staatsorchester. This was amazing Strauss playing which would be hard to better anywhere.

The cast generally had great quality, offering fine singers and magnificent actors, and seemed to be enjoying themselves on stage even more than the audience, although they too were immensely appreciative. Diana Damrau was an outstanding interpreter of Aminta, also called Timidia in the second Act (do you remember Norina/Sofronia?). Though she is well into her pregnancy, this does not prevent her from moving around on stage with great agility. Ms Damrau is simply the ideal interpreter of this character – I guarantee you will find no-one better – and her presence brings even more prestige than usual to the already praiseworthy Munich Opera Festival.

Sir Morosus was Franz Hawlata, repeating his performance in Seville. His performance was much more convincing than in Spain, which has to a lot to do with Barrie Kosky’s direction. He is though, a better actor than singer, since he was rather short of amplitude particularly for some the deep bottom notes, that are so much needed for this character.

The English tenor Toby Spence was a magnificent Henry Morosus, both in terms of singing and acting ; he’s a singer I always enjoy, whose voice though light, is very well projected. Another relative surprise was the presence of Nikolay Borchev as the Barber, an excellent choice. His performance was also very good and he offered a very pleasant lyric baritone and is a gifted actor. The Russian soprano Elena Tsallagova was a remarkable Isotta, while French mezzo Anaïk Morel was an outstanding actress as Carlotta,but was not quite as bright in vocal terms. Christophe Stephinger as Vanuzzi and Steven Humes as Farfallo were both excellent and there was a good performance too from Christian Rieger as Morbio. To round off this comsummate cast, the experienced Catherine Wyn-Rogers made a fine Haushälterin.

There was a fully sold out house with numerous “suche karte” signs on display by the entrance to the theatre. The company had a triumphant, particularly for Diana Damrau and Kent Nagano. Franz Hawlata, Toby Spence and Nikolay Borchev were also roundly cheered by the audience.

José M Irurzun

Picture © Bayerische Staatsoper / Wilfried Hösl

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