It began – and ended – in 2001. Herbert Wernicke startled the basically conservative Met with an astonishingly progressive production of Richard Strauss’s magnificently bloated Die Frau ohne Schatten. He actually made theatrical sense of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s high-minded, hopelessly convoluted libretto.
Serving as his own designer and lighting magician, Wernicke played the spiritual scenes in a surreal hall of mirrors. For the mundane episodes, he created a contemporary milieu resembling an industrial warehouse. For the ultimate resolution, he introduced neo-Brechtian imagery. He dealt in revelations at all levels. Tragically, he died at 56 in 2002.
The current revival respects his expressive devices if not his character definitions. J. Knighten Smit, listed as stage director, has taken some liberties. The Empress, a debut assignment for Anne Schwanewilms, now imitates a singing statue addicted to slow-motion semaphore. The evil Nurse, Ildikó Komlósi, spends most of her time impersonating a twitchy-smirky femme fatale.
If the evening can boast a hero, the honour must go to Vladimir Jurowski, who conducts with abiding passion, sensitivity and propulsion. The Met orchestra plays virtuosically for him, though the cast is uneven. Christine Goerke imbues the mood swings of the Dyer’s Wife with gutsy ardour and vocal grandeur, some shrillness under pressure notwithstanding. Torsten Kerl works diligently, often successfully, to validate the awkward tessitura and stilted dignity of the Emperor. Johan Reuter exudes sympathy as Barak despite a baritone a size smaller than ideal. Richard Paul Fink makes a major impression in the minor duties of the Spirit Messenger. But Schwanewilms’ lyric soprano is strained by the dramatic outbursts of the Empress, and Komlósi sounds meek and weak in the taxing machinations of the Nurse.
The Met has performed this 94-year-old challenge – affectionately known as FroSch – only 60 times, and it still seems to unnerve New Yorkers. The house was less than packed at the outset, and the audience shrank considerably as the evening wore on. Still, the long deferred final climax earned a mighty ovation. Perhaps relief had something to do with it.