Monday, June 26, 2017

Rescuing 'Die Frau ohne Schatten'

Opera is a live performance and live performances have their problems. We should probably wonder why they don't fail more often than they do.

The third and final opera I saw in Leipzig was Die Frau ohne Schatten by Richard Strauß and the problem they had was that Jennifer Wilson, the dramatic soprano who was to sing the role of the Dyers Wife, called in sick two days before the show. Not many people can sing this role - it is extraordinarily demanding and requires a certain type of voice - well, the voice of a dramatic soprano.

Leipzig opera was very lucky though. The Russian dramatic soprano  Elena Pankratowa is studying the role for Munich and found time (flying in from another engagement a couple of hours before the curtain went up) to sing the role in Leipzig.

She sung it from the score, standing to the side of the stage where the audience could see her. The role was 'acted’ by one of the staff, though acted is too strong a word really. The substitute dressed in approximately the clothes the Dyers Wife would wear and moved to the spots where the singer would have stood.

It was a good tactic, because you could see the emotion of the actual singer at the same time as you saw where she was meant to be.

The substitute moved about the stage like a wooden doll and this lack of acting made you realise how much you depend on real acting by the singers to bring their roles alive. It was a fascinating experience and a  rewarding insight. Elena Pankratowa got a huge ovation and it wasn't only gratitude that she had made the effort to come to Leipzig but a sincere appreciation of her singing. It is such a demanding role, and she sang it wonderfully well. 
'Frau ohne Schatten' cast take their bows
with Elena Pankratowa in the pink stole (middle right)
My only previous contact with the opera was listening to a YouTube recording of a friend singing one of the Dyers Wife pieces. The Dyers Wife is unhappy and it shows in her singing so I had been prepared for a discordant opera that I mightn't much like.  I was surprised to discover how very beautiful the music is (I am sure having Ulf Schirmer conducting helped), particularly the part of Barak, the Dyer, sung by Franz  Grundheber.  I'll remember Barak, the Dyer, long after I have forgotten many other singers.

Now I understand why Die Frau ohne Schatten is called Strauß's best opera and why it is so often performed. I just count myself lucky that this, my first experience, was with such an accomplished cast and orchestra.

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