* Notes *
Richard Strauss' Die Frau Ohne Schatten (Act I Scene 2 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) returned to San Francisco Opera after an absence of 34 years. The vibrant production by artist David Hockney premiered at Covent Garden way back in 1992, but still has much to recommend it, and the singing and playing were all wonderful.
The plot of this opera, as with so many of Strauss' operas, was written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It is basically a fairy tale about a magical empress who has no shadow, meaning she is barren, and she must find a shadow or the emperor will turn to stone. She descends to the human realm with her nurse, and tries to gain a shadow from the wife of Barak the Dyer. There is much talk of the unborn. The empress eventually decides it is wrong to harm Barak, as his wife will unable to have children if she gives up her shadow, and in the end she is granted grace and given a shadow. This folktale is consider to be of Aarne-Thompson type 755, about forgiveness and redemption, and has origins in Scandinavia.
Hockney's set is as colorful as the music is, the many scenes are switched up with ease. I really loved how the earthly realm of Barak the Dyer and his wife looked like a rainbow salt mine, even the mortals live in technicolor. The costumes, from Ian Falconer of Olivia fame, looked to be influenced by Rajasthani or Mughal miniature painting.
The cast included 25 principals and not only the regular chorus but a children's chorus. Soprano Nina Stemme (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) sounded as powerful and glittery as ever as Barak's Wife (Die Färberin). It was fun to hear her with soprano Linda Watson (Nurse/Die Amme), since they are both known for performing Brünnhilde. Watson has a more strident tone, but it works for this role, which was written for mezzo-soprano, and the two singers did sound very distinct. The Empress (Die Kaiserin), sung by soprano Camilla Nylund, seemed like a very challenging part, there were dizzying heights that were frankly shrill. But there was no mistaking Nylund for the other two sopranos. Baritone Johan Reuter was a very human Barak, and sang with warmth. Tenor David Butt Philip was certainly more otherworldly as the The Emperor.
The orchestra sounded magnificent under Maestro Donald Runnicles, there were so many colors and textures in the music that came out rather beautifully. This is definitely an opera to return to, and I'm very curious to read the score.
* Tattling *
The people in Box D Seats 7 and 8 arrived slightly late and left a few minutes before the end of the opera. We inconvenienced them by being in their seats at the start, as the person in Seat 4 kept going in and out of the box. The person in Seat 4 also spent a little time texting, but this was relatively brief. The person in Seat 8 smashed her plastic water bottle in order to drink, and this happened 2 or 3 times. She also left the bottle at her seat after leaving the performance.
Otherwise it was pretty quiet, most of the people in attendance very much wanted to be there and were listening intently.