Schwanewilms, Goerke, Komlosi, Kerl, Reuter / Jurowski
The premiere of this landmark production a dozen years ago -- just months before director/designer Herbert Wernicke's untimely death -- was a visual-dramatic triumph aided by music, with Christian Thielemann and the Met Orchestra taking the sonic honors over the mixed cast. Its revival two years later was reduced in all aspects, with neither J. Knighten Smit's revival stage direction nor Philippe Auguin's dry conducting nor the even patchier cast meeting original standards. This time Vladimir Jurowski is blessed with a fundamentally well-cast group of singers, and leads them with fire and an impressive orchestral palette in a musical triumph. With this in place, it's not fatal but merely regrettable that the revived production again just shows the magnificent skeleton of Wernicke's work, without quite the focus or daring of its original incarnation.
Debuting soprano Anne Schwanewilms shows both sides of the matter. Without question she has better basic tools for the Empress than her predecessor Deborah Voigt: with a reasonably cutting but basically middle-weight voice, more delicacy and flexibility in emotional expression, and a bit of mystery in her person, Schwanewilms is able to show the character's sisterly relation to the other great heroines of Strauss (the Marschallin, Countess Madeleine, et al.) along with her flight from and confrontation with a thing as foreign to her as to her brethren -- a true moral question, one that does not present itself almost pre-answered in social garb. (For amoral charmer Manon is also a sister, though one from a less ordered universe.) This is more or less enough, and a fine core for the piece, but while Schwanewilms' willingness to act and make specific points is great, the specific stuff she enacts seems out of place -- made for a quite different production of Frau than the one she's in. Others have, I think, commented on the bird-style arm-waving of the first acts (which I was terrified would continue into the finale, when she's supposed to have embraced humanity with the shadow business), but even stranger to my eyes was the outburst of German Stage Acting in the here-uncut frozen Emperor scene. Here her sudden rhetorical fluency was hugely jarring not just because it's usually cut to nothing, but because Schwanewilms began by enacting and thereby foregrounding her character's flightiness and moral childishness. To have her sound so comfortable and self-aware in her dilemma afterwards was an unexplained reversal.
It's hard to blame the singer for this, however, and it was on the whole a successful and promising debut. But the night belonged to Christine Goerke, who's the first Dyer's wife in long memory to remind us that this was originally a Lotte Lehmann part. Goerke's portrayal is in fact so fundamentally warm and vulnerable that it may go a bit too far, eliding some of the temperament and difficulty of the character (who was after all, modeled after Strauss' wife) rather than just balancing them with the humane (as Gabriele Schnaut effectively did in 2001). But this error, if it is one, does preserve the basic cool/hot split between the Empress and the wife, and it's hard to resist Goerke's equally warm and humane singing in a beastly part. As touching as anything else on the night was her genuine emotional/cathartic reaction to the storm of applause at her bow.
Though his firm bass-baritone impressed as aristocratic jerk Prus in The Makropoulos Case, I wouldn't have expected Johan Reuter to be such a successful Barak. He leads the men here, with a sound just as firm but still encompassing the humane warmth of the Dyer.
Torsten Kerl was a pretty good Menelas in The Egyptian Helen, and he's a reasonably good Emperor here. (Some will -- painfully -- recall John Horton Murray's massacre of the part in 2003 (and some of 2001) and sigh in relief.) Kerl maintains a nice tone and timbre throughout -- even in the usually-cut hard stuff in Act III -- and he phrases pretty well... he just can't blast for effect when called to do so. That's fine, though the de-stoning solo loses something. Ildiko Komlosi doesn't have a huge range of color or volume, but, like Schwanewilms, uses the lesser weight of her voice to bring out a bit more of the eloquent Hofmannsthalness of even this villain character than I recall from Reinhild Runkel et al.
The best, most memorable soloists in 2001 were in fact Met principals David Chan (violin) and Rafael Figueroa (cello), whose work in the Water of Life and Falcon scenes respectively illuminated the Empress and Emperor's hearts better than the actual singers. Chan returns in this run, as excellent as ever, but as well as the Met's other cello principal Jerry Grossman does here, he doesn't efface memories of his colleague's warmth and tonal/emotional depth. Nor, I suppose, does Jurowski vis-a-vis Thielemann, but to compare seems unfair when the Russian (1) forces a fully uncut revival, (2) encompasses the violence and drive of the piece (particularly in the interludes) as well as its delicacy, and (3) inspires a coherent and beautiful sonic whole. Perhaps the end isn't as fervent as it could be, but perhaps that too will arrive in the next weeks.
The most striking and affecting thing about Wernicke's production on its debut wasn't its glorious images and effects and visual scenes -- many of which have been borrowed by subsequent productions -- but the sheer unbridled sincerity of the whole. Perhaps it takes a genius to not hide behind ample cleverness and technical effect and just, e.g., have the Emperor ride across the stage on a white horse, and later finish the piece by lighting the auditorium ceiling from the stage to include the audience in the celebratory circle before having the falcon swoop across in a colorful combined splash of stage and story magic. Revival director J. Knighten Smit and his assistants aren't such confident geniuses, and so they have cut the horse and the closing falcon appearance and just given us the starkly impressive bones of the show. This is still something -- a huge and significant landmark that you all should see -- but the effect, though more in the Gelb-era style, is unfortunately less complete than the original's. Nor, I think, would Wernicke have let Schwanewilms stick to just production-agnostic acting, as she does in ignoring the magical blue heaven of stars that the show gives her before she invokes them in protection...
The second night brought: somewhat less arm-flapping, somewhat less shock at curtain from Goerke (though equally good singing), and a somewhat more full house. We'll see how things progress from here.