The first of the 15 operas by Richard Strauss:Salome (The third), electra, the rose knight, Ariadne on NaxosY The shadowless woman they tend to be performed much more frequently than most of the latter. Of the last group, only the tenth Arabella and the last Whim they are produced regularly, at least in opera houses outside of Germany. Among the reasons for this decline in popularity was the age of the composer (he was turning 70 when the silent woman was completed), with some sense on his part of a loss of freshness in his musical invention; the loss of his prized librettist, the Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who died suddenly of a stroke in the midst of his work on Arabella; and the ugly and dangerous political situation with Hitler’s rise to power in 1933.
Even while completing Arabella, Strauss was actively looking for a new librettist. He asked Stefan Zweig, at the time one of the most respected and successful writers in the German language, if he would be willing to propose a theme for an opera. Zweig had prepared a German translation of the Ben Jonson comedy volpone, that Strauss had enjoyed in the theater. When Zweig proposed an adaptation of Jonson Epicoene or the silent womanStrauss immediately agreed.
Although several Strauss operas contain humorous scenes, Die schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman) it is the only one that is essentially comic, with elements of farce presented in the production staged as part of Summerscape 2022 at Bard College.
Jonson set his game in his own time, in the early 17the century, and Zweig retained the English setting but moved the action forward to the 18the century, a period that Strauss loved (as he had already shown in Rosenkavalier). A retired naval officer, Sir Morosus, suffered an ear injury during his long military career and cannot stand the noise. The doors of his house are covered with thick black curtains to suppress noise. The only other person who lives in the house is his old and talkative housekeeper. A regular visitor is the hairdresser Herr Schneidebart (“Mr. Cutbeard”), whom the housekeeper pleads with to recommend that Morosus marry her. The barber disagrees; this leads to a noisy argument that eventually wakes up the teacher. The barber prepares to shave him, suggesting that an inexperienced girl would make a suitable and calm wife. Moroso is not interested. A noise at the door attracts Henry, Morosus’s nephew, who had been studying in Pavia before dropping out and joining a troupe of Italian actors. Morosus is delighted that Henry is back; he now he doesn’t need a quiet wife. But Henry introduces his company (which Morosus first imagines to be a corps of military companies): three men, three women, and an opera choir. One of the women is Henry’s wife, Aminta.
With their arrival, we have the five main characters and we begin to perceive the nature of the opera before us: Strauss plans to write something like an Italian opera buffa from the period of the opera stage, that of Mozart and Rossini. He shapes scenes into arias, duets, and other ensembles, and even makes considerable use of spoken dialogue rather than dry recitative of their Italian predecessors.
Morosus is horrified by the scandal that Henry has caused in his house. He disinherits the young man and asks the barber to find him a quiet wife. Not knowing where to find such a wonder (none of the women in the Italian troupe are interested in a life of silence), he has the brilliant idea of disguising the three young women as candidates, with Morosus himself making the choice. Men can serve as priest and notary in a mock wedding. Aminta will play the sweet young woman who, once Morosus believes they are married, quickly turns into a rowdy witch.
Thus, Act I launches the amusing plot, which already reveals in its events and its music references to popular Italian operas and passages from previous works by Strauss himself. There are lyrical passages (such as a tender duet between Henry and Aminta) and rapid-fire comic ensembles, such as the end of the first act, in which the entire Italian company promises to help play this trick on old Morosus. (A delightful staging here: A long pole spanning the entire stage is lowered by ropes from the ceiling, like a giant curtain rod, filled with dozens of costumes; in Morosus’s absence, the entire ensemble gleefully chooses the selection, each taking on a costume suitable for their role in the upcoming sport, ending the act in high spirits).
The opera is underway with a cast of excellent singing actors, who turn the plot development into a delightful farce. Sir Morosus, the baritone Harold Wilson, is tall and physically funny as he is first tricked and then made fun of. The Barber (baritone Edward Nelson) echoes the famous Figaro from Mozart and Rossini operas, as a man capable of resolving a complex situation to his own satisfaction. The housekeeper (contralto Ariana Lucas) tries to attract her master’s attention, but for the most part she ends up desperate for the pranks that progressively engulf the house. Henry (tenor David Portillo) and Aminta (soprano Jana McIntyre) are at times a soulful pairing of young lovers, but they also keep their eyes on the ultimate goal, particularly Aminta, whose sweet soprano turns into high-pitched, soaring squeals after she has “married” Moroso. Her friends Aminta (soprano Anya Matanovič) and Isotta (soprano) and Carlotta (mezzosa) are the other two marriage candidates, who carefully, amusingly, present themselves as totally different from what Morosus could wish for. .
The sham marriage takes place, Aminta (who calls herself Timida) joins Morosus and the others onstage in a richly lyrical sextet, but what follows is anything but sedate. Members of the troupe of actors burst out dressed as sailors on a shore holiday spree to celebrate the admiral on his wedding day. Aminta begins to feel sorry for the old man, but she has yet to play her part. She has many demands: friends her age, new furniture, a carriage and horses, non-stop music, jewelry, and more. Henry arrives; Morosus is relieved and promises him the entire estate if Henry can free him from this tyrant. Henry now sends Morosus off for a good (and welcome) night’s sleep, as he and Aminta once again sing tenderly to each other.
Act III takes place the next morning. Workers (again from the Italian company) are rearranging the furniture and hammering nails into the walls. Henry arrives with a music teacher to give Aminta a singing lesson, inspired, he says, by Monteverdi’s work. The Coronation of Poppaea, although in fact Strauss sets largely new music, with a small quotation from the earlier opera. As Morosus enters half asleep, the music lesson becomes more and more, a climb into the vocal stratosphere. The barber enters with Vanuzzi (baritone Matthew Anchel) as presiding judge (he had been the pastor at the mock wedding the day before), along with clerks and witnesses. In the annulment hearing, conducted in amusing Latin, Enrique is a witness disguised behind a beard who swears to have had carnal knowledge of the bride. The uproar grows so loud that Morosus covers his ears with a pillow. The barber begins to calm the scene. Henry and Aminta remove their disguises and sincerely apologize to Morosus, explaining the trick they had played on him. He is angry at first, but eventually sees the funny side of events and rejoices that he doesn’t have to marry any woman, silent or not. He recognizes that a silent wife is better off when she belongs to another man. After all the raucous events, the stage gradually empties and the orchestra settles down as Morosus takes the hands of his nephew and his nephew’s girlfriend, and all ends peacefully.
the silent woman it has many amusing moments, and is staged on Bard for enjoyment, with comedic twists on the bafflement of an old man who makes an unwise decision to marry and nearly commits suicide. The orchestra, as always with Strauss, unfolds with splendid richness whether in the liveliest scenes of full-blown energy or sweetly romantic scenes of lovers, or in the comic portrayal of the Italian actors in their changing roles. It is, without a doubt, a rather long opera. In a full performance, like here, with two 20-minute intermissions, it’s 4:45. Originally, director Karl Böhm made several cuts to advance the story. Certainly, in this very rare performance in the United States, a strong case can be made for listening to the entire work, but cutting a few minutes here or there could be useful.
Still, the performance provided an enormous amount of fun, with a wonderful moving set design by stage manager Christian Rath, who used the various spaces and revolving pieces very effectively to set the scene for the great cast. Choreography was handled by David Neumann, costume design by Mattie Ullrich, and lighting design by Rick Fisher. The work requires a large orchestra of 95 musicians. As usual with these Bard productions, Leon Botstein conducted his American Symphony Orchestra, with good balance and rhythm. the silent woman it’s one of Strauss’s less frequently heard operas, but it certainly deserves an audience from time to time, and this one was definitely worth it.
The race continues until the end of the month.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and music teacher. He earned his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s and then became a program commentator with the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.