“Ha! Is there a quiet lady in Richard Strauss‘ “Die Schweigsame Frau?” asks basso buffo Morosus. “She can only be found in a graveyard, behind a stone cross.”
It wasn’t a big deal when Strauss’s lone opera buffa opened in Dresden in 1935 that the work’s casual sexism was rarely a topic of dispute. However, there was controversy surrounding the opera’s text, which was written by a Jew, Stefan Zweig, only two weeks before Adolf Hitler became Germany’s chancellor in 1933.
An unusual production of “The Silent Woman” was presented Friday night at Bard College’s Fisher Center for Performing Arts by Bard SummerScape as part of the college’s annual SummerScape Festival. This opera has all it needed to be a great one: clever staging, an engaging cast, and efficient evocative designs.
There is a lot of talk regarding Strauss’ miscalculations in reference to the Nazi dictatorship, his efforts to remain out of politics while attempting to win favour and safeguard his Jewish daughter in law.
A letter he sent after accepting the president of the Reich Chamber of Music referred to it as a “tiresome honorary appointment.” Nazi antisemitism, he wrote in his journals, was “a disgrace to German honour.” A last blow to his collaboration with Zweig was his failure to see that the National Socialist rule was more than a passing political fad.
After the tragic death of his beloved librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, composer Strauss wrote to Zweig: “If you forsake me, too, I’ll have to lead from now on the life of an ill, jobless pensioner.”
Goebbels and Hitler, according to a letter from Strauss, apparently found “Frau” to be uncontroversial. He and his employer stayed away from the premiere when Strauss demanded that Zweig’s name be included in the programme book. The opera was only prohibited as a result of a letter sent by Strauss that was intercepted by the Gestapo and stated his disapproval of Nazism.
Zweig committed himself in Brazil in 1942 after enduring years in exile. After the bombing of German opera theatres and the collapse of German culture, Strauss was still able to compose his Horn Concerto No. 2 and the “Four Last Songs,” despite the loss of his whole artistic community.
“Die Schweigsame Frau,” an opera about the retired admiral Morosus, whose tinnitus makes him a world-class grouch who can’t take the toll of church bells or the prospect of a nagging spouse, is set against this setting. Strauss was impressed with Zweig’s Italianate comedy without psychological underpinnings.
Disinheriting and insulting Henry’s wife Aminta when Henry shows up with his theatrical group is Morosus’s reaction to Henry’s choice of vocation. As in Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale,” the troupe has him learn a lesson by having Aminta pretend to be a demure young lady and marry Morosus in a fake wedding. From there, he throws fits and turns his life upside down until he begs for forgiveness.
The director and set designer Christian Räth presents “Frau” as an opera about putting on an opera for Bard’s entertaining production. “Ruhe” (calm) lights like an exit sign over the doors of his tidy house while stagehands do scene changes in front of the audience.
Morosus’s deceit becomes a performance in and of itself. Costumes for the theatrical group are sourced from prior Strauss performances that have already been put on stage. Morosus presents his three possible brides-to-be with a silver rose right out of Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” (and “The Bachelor”) at the end of the auditions.
The actors and crew are completely devoted to their roles. As Morosus, Harold Wilson has a commanding bass voice. Strikingly beautiful vocals are sung by Jana McIntyre (Aminta) and David Portillo (Henry) under Strauss’ demands. The Barber is transformed into an extraordinarily appealing factotum by Edward Nelson’s attractive and refined voice. In his role as impresario Vanuzzi, Matthew Anchel is a hoot, and his bass has a pleasingly compact sound and depth to it. Chrystal E. Williams (Carlotta), Anya Matanovic (Isotta), and Ariana Lucas (Housekeeper) all go headfirst into their roles.
Male ballet dancers never missed an opportunity to shake their plate tutus thanks to the hilarious and spectacular costumes by Mattie Ullrich, who altered the whole company of the show.
Despite Strauss’s use of arch musical commentary to amplify spoken conversation, the orchestra sometimes seems like an elephant in ballet shoes due to his lavish manner and parlando vocal lines. Leon Botstein, the opera’s conductor at Bard, demonstrated the opera’s agility by putting less emphasis on tonal grandeur. Act II’s stunning duet-turned-trio, with its Straussian wafts of pungent woodwinds, arose quickly and cleanly from the overture’s eccentric doodling.
Choristers and dancers in giant face masks of actual people rushed the stage as Räth injected resistance into a piece that had been politicised even before it was performed (including Mozart, Bach, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Maria Cebotari, the first Aminta). Strauss’s mask was flanked by the masks of Hitler and Goebbels, who dragged him away by the elbows.
With a reflection far distant from the current chaos, Strauss’s opera comes to a finale with the majestic final monologue from “Capriccio.”
To Wilson’s Morosus: a dying jobless retiree sang with sympathetic restraint about his hope for peace as the strings became louder and louder. He clutched Strauss and Zweig’s masks, which had been torn apart by homicidal intolerance and were now finally rejoined.