Magazine article The Spectator

Garrulous Strauss

Magazine article The Spectator

Garrulous Strauss

Article excerpt

Die schweigsame Frau

Garsington

L'Arlesiana

Holland Park

Die schweigsame Frau is one of Richard Strauss's harmless later operas, agreeable in that it has no pretensions to be dealing with any serious issue, or really any issue at all. Adapted by Stefan Zweig from Ben Jonson's Epicoene, it does make one wonder what is the point of reworking something so drastically that it might as well have started off independently. The central figure is a retired sea-dog with an aversion to noise, especially noisy opera singers - perhaps it was put on with a nod to the preoccupations of the elderly inhabitants of Garsington. Whereas Jonson's Morose is an objectionable figure, Zweig and Strauss's oldster is just a bit crusty, and understandably so. So the jokes at his expense, by his nephew and attendants, of having him think he's married a demure quiet girl who turns into a shrieking harridan, are not only cruel as comedy is, and perhaps politically incorrect, as comedy must be, but arbitrary and pointless.

When Strauss was on uncertain ground he tended to protract things in the hope of discovering inspiration or significance, and that happens in this opera to a monumental degree. The first two acts, played straight through, are two and a quarter hours long, the third - by now virtually plotless - a further hour. In German-speaking countries the work is invariably cut, but at Garsington we had every last note. Without surtitles - surely everyone will agree - it would have been unbearable. As it was, thanks to a most attractive set, not to mention the setting, a lively and not too busy production, and a decent cast, under the firm control of Elgar Howarth, it made a pleasant evening, only demanding on the anatomy. Insofar as there is musical interest, it is that Strauss is attempting an opera buffa rather than a Singspiel, though there is some spoken dialogue. He wanted a combination, or alternation, of rapid comic chatter and mellow life-accepting horn-saturated glow, but though we get both they don't add up to much. What, surprisingly, does come to mind is Baba the Turk from Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, the weakest part of that score, as it happens. Opera buffa as embodied in Don Pasquale may sound easy to do, but attempts to revive it have almost never worked. It is, though, as if Strauss realised that his vein of late Romanticism couldn't be tapped for ever, and was seeking energy from a quite different source. …

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