ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, NY – “Ha! A silent woman?” sings bass buffo Morosus in Richard Strauss’ “Die Schweigsame Frau.”
The flippant misogyny of Strauss’ only opera buffa – a work that unfolds like a love letter to Mozart, Rossini and Donizetti – was hardly a point of controversy when it premiered in Dresden in 1935. But the controversy was there : the libretto for the opera was written by Stefan Zweig, a Jew, who submitted it two weeks before Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933.
On Friday night, Bard SummerScape unveiled a rare staging of “The Silent Woman” at Bard College’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts this reconciled the light-as-a-feather subject with its heavy historical context. The witty staging, engaging cast, and effective evocative designs made a good opera feel like a great one.
Much has been written about Strauss’ miscalculations regarding the Nazi regime, his attempts to stay out of politics while ingratiating himself and protecting his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandsons.
He accepted the chairmanship of the Reich Chamber of Music, a position he later described as a “boring honorary office” in a letter that got him in hot water. In his notebooks, he called Nazi anti-Semitism “a dishonor to German honor”. Ultimately, he underestimated the National Socialist dictatorship as a political fashion, a nuisance affecting his work with Zweig, who was forced to flee the country.
Strauss, who once thought that his creativity would not survive the sudden death of his beloved librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, wrote to Zweig: “If you abandon me too, I shall henceforth have to conduct the life of a sick and unemployed retiree.
According to a letter from Strauss, Joseph Goebbels and Hitler, presumably finding nothing subversive in “Frau”, approved of it. After Strauss insisted that Zweig’s name appear on the program, the propagandist and his boss skipped the premiere. It was only after Strauss expressed his negative view of Nazism in a letter intercepted by the Gestapo that the opera was banned.
In 1942, Zweig, on pain of exile in Brazil, committed suicide. Strauss, defeated by the bombardment of German opera houses and the collapse of his culture, nevertheless had music in him, notably his Horn Concerto No. 2 and the “Last Four Songs”.
In this context we have “Die Schweigsame Frau”, an opera about retired Admiral Morosus, whose tinnitus makes him a world-class curmudgeon who cannot stand the ringing of church bells or the idea of a nagging spouse. Zweig provided Italian-style comedy with no psychological foundation, and Strauss was delighted.
When Morosus’ nephew, Henry, shows up with his theater troupe, Morosus, appalled at Henry’s chosen career, disinherits him and insults his wife, Aminta. The troupe teaches him a recognizable lesson from Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”: Aminta, disguised as a wise ingenue, marries Morosus in a fictional ceremony and proceeds to throw tantrums and turn his life upside down until he begs for mercy. .
For Bard’s delicious production, director and scenographer Christian Räth stages “Frau” like an opera on the staging of an opera. Stagehands execute scene changes in full view of the audience, and Morosus’ one-word mantra, “Ruhe” (silent), shines like an exit sign above the doors of his orderly home.
Morosus’ disappointment becomes a spectacle in itself. The theater troupe scours the clothes racks of other Strauss productions for their costumes. Morosus auditions his three potential brides on a mini-replica of the stage where “Frau” had its premiere in 1935, presenting the winner with a silver rose straight out of Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” (and “The Bachelor”).
The troupe – and the cast – are fully committed to their roles. Harold Wilson commands a sonorous bass as the proud and endearing Morosus. Jana McIntyre (Aminta) and David Portillo (Henry) sing with bright, earnest lyrical vocals that hint at stridency under Strauss’ demands. The handsome and polite Edward Nelson transforms the barber into an exceptionally convincing factotum. Matthew Anchel, a riot like impresario Vanuzzi, shows attractive compact bass with depth of tone. Ariana Lucas (Governess), Chrystal E. Williams (Carlotta), and Anya Matanovic (Isotta) enthusiastically immerse themselves in their characters.
Mattie Ullrich’s funny and dazzling costumes transformed the cast, including a male corps de ballet who never missed an opportunity to rock their set tutus.
Strauss underlined spoken dialogue with arch instrumental commentary, but the orchestra, at times paralyzed by its lavish style and parlando vocal lines, shifts its weight like an elephant in ballerina shoes. At Bard, conductor Leon Botstein, devaluing tonal grandeur, showed opera to be light on its feet. The eccentric scribbling of the opening emerged quickly and cleanly, and the magical duo-turned-trio that ends Act II sang along, with straussian puffs of pungent woodwinds.
Räth, injecting resistance into an unwillingly politicized work, transformed the chaotic wedding scene into a nightmarish sequence: choristers and dancers invaded the stage with large masks of real characters (including Mozart, Bach, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Maria Cebotari , the first Aminta). Ominously, the masks of Hitler and Goebbels flanked a Strauss mask and carried it by the elbows.
The opera ends with a reflection far removed from the ambient chaos, a bit like the glorious final monologue of Strauss’ last opera, “Capriccio”.
As the strings swelled, Wilson’s Morosus came forward, offering a glimpse of peace, sung with touching restraint, of a sick, unemployed pensioner at the end of his life. He held in his hands the masks of Strauss and Zweig, separated by a murderous bigotry, finally reunited.
The silent woman
Until Sunday at Bard College; fishercenter.bard.edu.