Die schweigsame Frau (Glyndebourne)
New Statesman, July 1977
Curtain-rise discloses the Thames-side living-quarters of Sir Morosus, a recluse whose visibly padded cell is decked on all hands with maritime trophies. As Sherlock Holmes might have deduced from the visual clues, we know nothing whatever about our hero, apart from the obvious facts that he is a vain, wealthy, obsessive and eccentric bachelor living c1770 in secluded retirement from the Royal Navy and suffering from a bad case of phonopobia. The stage picture is brightly if unrealistically focused in one central image – a ship's figure-head, finger on lips, enjoining silence. The music is full of similarly neat and significant touches, often cleverly illustrated by stage gesture. The overture's vivacious thematic interplay, with scoring deftly stripped to run at a fiery pace, explains that we are about to be served with a light and sugared confection, set ablaze with high spirits. For me it turned out to be, if not just a load of old crêpe, at least distastefully flat and sour. I think the audience felt that the opera and the evening had both been rather sadly frittered away.
What was to blame? Not the brilliant orchestral performance under the racy yet sensitive direction of Andrew Davis. Not the generally admirable cast; or yet the vigour and variety of Richard Strauss's musical invention, still unflagging at 70. On the contrary it was rather the very taut fittingness of his musical material that revealed the underlying flaws and strains. Perhaps his motivic inspiration was over‑stretched; as he explained to his librettist, it was stocked in limited lengths and had to be specially extended. As he further explained, his art needed situations and words as a scaffold. But in my judgment the libretto, executed by Stefan Zweig, lies dead on the stage; and the mimic ineluctably shares its fatal coldness.
I feel that Zweig worked here as in other genres, with best-selling intentions which are as self-defeating as they are self-evident. His adaptation of Ben Jonson's The Silent Woman is heavily powdered and perfumed with sentimentality, and patched with derivations from Italian opera and earlier Strauss, complete with a troupe of comedians à la Hofmannsthal. The text is clearly intended as an act of homage to an old master, which may explain why Strauss not only failed to discern its elements of fakery but hailed it as a masterpiece on first viewing. Shorn of its mordant Jonsonian ironies and moralities, though, the main-spring of the action becomes weakened and twisted. All that happens is that a harmless old man is mercilessly tormented and gulled by mountebanks, and as a result decides, very implausibly, to reconcile his way of life with theirs. For a contemporary English-speaking audience accustomed to the post-Reformation tradition of humane comedy, much of the plot must have seemed not merely unfunny but painful.
At times it was literally the latter. The main joke is the distress caused by noise; and that point was remorselessly drummed, shot, pounded and hammered home. Cannons on stage right and left, as well as in the orchestra pit, volleyed and thundered. But of course the performance was not all clangours, and there were several saving graces in both sound and scene. First, the insistence on sound-effectiveness stopped well short of most of the German text, apart from the incisive cutting-edge of Peter Gottlieb's brisk and articulate Schneidebart. Again, the plot would have been even less endurable if Morosus had been presented as a truly sympathetic character; but Richard Cross managed to overcome that difficulty. Janet Perry in the name part coped well with the tricky task of presenting a basically charming character who just happens to be caught conning a victim, with occasional concessions to conscience. There was at least a basis of verisimilitude; her role is that of an opera-singer, and her lively coloratura sounded the part both pleasantly and convincingly. Jerome Pruett also filled the bill well as her husband, the scapegrace nephew Henry – the kind of theatre manager who is deservedly known by the company he keeps.
Among his troupe, Nan Christie as Isotta and Enid Hartle as Carlotta rendered precise and elegant accounts of two particularly exacting impersonations. All the cast worked tirelessly to wring the last drop of brackish fun from the rather arid characters. And there were moments of genuine comic invention, especially when Strauss flowered out from Zweig into his open expressive ideas. A pretty specimen was the musical image of ill-matched union at the end of Act Two. The voice of Morosus, who is hiding in his room to escape from his termagant bride, is made to sing the same note as hers, four octaves apart; the voices are heard, as the characters are seen, reaching the end of their tethers in opposite directions. But the general impression remained one of fire and brilliance without sustained warmth. If I heard aright, Strauss erred in following and reproducing, all too faithfully, what Jonson called “th’ adulteries of art”. They strike the eyes, and (even more) the ears; but not the heart.