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Under Strauss' spell

The Los Angeles Opera stages a whimsical, powerful and strongly cast production of 'Die Frau Ohne Schatten.'

February 24, 2004|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Richard Strauss' epic opera "Die Frau Ohne Schatten" (The Woman Without a Shadow) is an incomparably glorious and goofy anti-abortion paean that has not been taken up by any political group I know of. It's hard to imagine as evidence for a Supreme Court case five little fishes who fly into a frying pan, the flames gleefully leaping up to greet them, the oil merrily bubbling to cook them, while their pathetic small voices wail in the background. They are the souls of unborn children pleading for admission into life. Evil forces have convinced their heartless mother to exchange her fertility for riches.

No opera in the repertory is so "relentlessly polyphiloprogenitive," Mitchell Morris writes in the Los Angeles Opera program book. That's the perfect long word for a long and symbolically long-winded opera. There is a lot under the surface in Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto, but many who love this crazy opera, who fall under the spell of Strauss' most elaborate score, couldn't care less what it means.

If you are one them, then don't miss it at the Los Angeles Opera, which Sunday night remounted its celebrated production featuring wonderful, playful sets by David Hockney. When this version was originally done in 1993, the sets reportedly stole a musically inadequate show. Not this time. "Die Frau" is a great challenge for any company, and the current outing, magnificently conducted by Kent Nagano and with an exceptionally strong cast, stunningly rises to it.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 25, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Opera review -- A review of Los Angeles Opera's "Die Frau Ohne Schatten" in Tuesday's Calendar section incorrectly characterized the work as "anti-abortion." In fact, there is no issue of abortion in the opera, which extols procreation.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 26, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 69 words Type of Material: Correction
Opera review -- A correction in Wednesday's paper about the review of Los Angeles Opera's "Die Frau Ohne Schatten" incorrectly implied that it was the reviewer who characterized the work as "anti-abortion" in Tuesday's Calendar. As the correction should have made clear, the lead paragraph submitted by the reviewer was incorrectly changed to include the term "anti-abortion." There is no issue of abortion in the opera, which extols procreation.

What is particularly interesting and unusual about this "Die Frau" is the way it approaches the opera's complex interaction between the spirit world and that of humans. Originally, Hofmannsthal wanted to write a latter-day "Magic Flute," just as he had made a latter-day "Marriage of Figaro" with Strauss in "Der Rosenkavalier." But this zealous poet couldn't stop himself once he got the mythological bug. World War I was breaking out, and he needed symbols, as many as possible, to cope with the new forces that were changing the world.

Two couples must go through trials. One pair is semi-mystical. An exotic emperor captures a magical gazelle who turns out to be a half-human, half-divine princess. The sex is great, but she can't conceive because she has no shadow. And if she doesn't get one, the emperor will turn to stone.

The empress and a malevolent nurse descend to the depths of humanity to lure one from the dissatisfied, harridan wife of a good-natured dyer, Barak (the only character named in the opera). Things need to be worked out and unborn children saved, which entails mystical trials by fire and water and the like.

For Strauss and Hofmannsthal, the opera is ultimately about the empress learning empathy: It's not right to take someone else's shadow. And if you go to the Metropolitan Opera, where Deborah Voigt spectacularly peals out the empress' music against a shiny mirrored set that looks like Donald Trump's idea of heaven (and where the humans live among the garbage in the basement), that's exactly what you will get.

In the L.A. Opera production, Inga Nielsen is a less vocally or dramatically domineering empress, although she peals prettily enough. She is dominated by two much lustier and more interesting women, the nurse and the dyer's wife, both sung by powerful Wagnerians. Patrick Young, who has mounted John Cox's original production, might have toned down the campy aspects of Doris Soffel's nurse. Nevertheless, hers is a gripping portrayal of a wily trickster.

Meanwhile, Linda Watson, the dyer's wife, is altogether heroic. This commanding soprano makes the role Strauss patterned after his famously termagant wife, Pauline, less shrew than sympathetic visionary. She forces Barak to discover his inner hero, just as Strauss credited Pauline with forcing him to do. Wolfgang Brendel is more long-suffering than most Baraks, but also more virile. Robert Dean Smith offers a strongly sung if dramatically bland emperor, but blandness pretty much goes along with the role.

Hockney's sets will be, for many, the production's allure. They are not lighted especially well, which is a shame, because they supply just the right amount of whimsy to an opera that needs it more than most, and their riot of color matches that of Strauss' orchestra perfectly. Still, the hues and patterns -- the knobbly purple trees of the spirit world, the striped vases of the human world -- entrance. I would suggest new costumes next time around, however. Ian Falconer's compete with more than enhance Hockney's designs. It is hard to take the emperor seriously when he wears a fancier dress than the Eempress.

But credit L.A. Opera with going all out on this production musically. Even small, offstage roles are luxuriously cast, with the countertenor Brian Asawa (poorly amplified) as the apparition of a youth and Constance Hauman as the voice of the falcon. Joohee Choi, one of the company's resident artists, shines as the keeper of the temple gates.

There are cuts, many of them. At the Met, you're in the theater for five hours; at the Music Center, you're out in a little less than four. For my taste, the whole thing moves too quickly. This is an opera in which to get lost. But the cuts mean a less grueling job for singers and orchestra. And the benefits show right away in how well L.A. Opera has mastered this intricate score.

This company has come a long way.


`Die Frau Ohne Schatten'

Where: Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: Wednesday and March 3, 6, 10, 7 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m.

Price: $25-$170

Contact: (213) 365-3500

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