OPERA REVIEW : Dohnanyi Vitalizes 'Frau ohne Schatten'

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

The opera season here hasn't been particularly distinguished. It might even be regarded as a triumph of mediocrity.

The quirky agenda was concocted, for the most part, by Terence McEwen, who abandoned his post as general director in mysterious haste long before opening night. His plans were salvaged by Lotfi Mansouri, who still functions more as caretaker than as innovator.

"Die Frau ohne Schatten," the 10th and final offering of the year, is one of Richard Strauss' most troubled works, a bloated network of bizarre philosophical metaphors, bombastic trivialities and sublime inspirations. The revival at the War Memorial Opera House, introduced Saturday, represents an odd fusion of miscalculations, compromises and splendors. Still, it may just be the best operatic effort of the year.

Much of the credit for success under trying conditions must belong to Christoph von Dohnanyi. The music director of the Cleveland Orchestra reminded San Franciscans what a world-class conductor can achieve in the often-beleaguered pit.

Dohnanyi could not make the strings sound consistently lush and silky any more than he could enforce security from the brass or reliable intonation from the timpani. Such miracles take time.

But he could sustain tension and illuminate detail. He could support the endangered voices yet construct shattering climaxes.

He bolstered poetry and savored sweeping theatricality. In the process, he even managed to minimize the threat of smothering gush. He also sanctioned some perfectly reasonable cuts.

The opera demands at least five superhuman singers--singers equipped with leather lungs and probing minds. They should be able to produce Wagnerian waves of tone one moment, pause for lyrical introspection the next and never tire during a four-hour marathon. They also should be able to sustain easy credibility in awkward tessituras--usually high--but still explore the lower depths with climactic impact. Strauss could be cruel.

McEwen assembled a quintet that only a hearing-impaired optimist would call ideal. Still, it turned out to be pretty good by current standards, which aren't exactly lofty.

The most serious problem involved Mary Jane Johnson, a glamorous lyric soprano from Texas celebrated in such roles as Puccini's Musetta and Johann Strauss' Rosalinde. McEwen dubbed her "my Jeritza"--a foolish invocation of the legendary Moravian diva--and cast her as the Empress.

She did assume some physical heft for the precarious assault on this dramatic challenge, but not the wonted vocal heft. In striving for unnatural impact, she allowed her once-lustrous tone to become edgy and unsteady. Her marksmanship in the stratosphere proved dubious at best.

Johnson sounded especially insecure next to Gwyneth Jones, who was singing the tempestuousDyer's Wife for the first time in America. At 53, the Welsh soprano seems to be enjoying a second operatic wind. She makes the mightiest, most incisive sound this side of Birgit Nilsson, and she remains a generous, compelling actress. Holding back is not her forte.

On this occasion, she sang magnificently in the first act. She tired a bit in the second, and showed some pardonable strain in the competitive screaming that constitutes the final quartet of purified exultation. At her best, she commanded awe. At her worst, she deserved admiration.

The fascinating, overpowering role of the evil Nurse is one of Strauss' nastiest creations. The music lies too high for most mezzo-sopranos, too low for most legitimate sopranos. Anja Silja, with her essentially bright and light timbre, is patently miscast here. But the German soprano virtually disarmed criticism with her uncanny sense of character, her expressive intensity, her resourceful application of tone and stress.

Like most tenors before him, William Johns struggled with the ascending heroic outbursts of the Emperor. He sang the more subdued portions of the role, however, with bel-canto finesse. Histrionically, he did nothing.

Alfred Muff, making his U.S. opera debut as Barak, sang with solid baritonal competence and exuded generalized goodness. Unfortunately, he could not make one forget such paragon predecessors as Paul Schoeffler, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Walter Berry.

Monte Pederson sounded modestly imposing as the Spirit Messenger. The vast array of supporting players drafted as assorted cripples, servants, announcers, watchmen, unborn children and voices of flying fish volunteering for the caldron (I'm not making this up, you know) proved notable for competence rather than brilliance.

Grischa Asagaroff inherited a rather clumsy, semi-naturalistic staging scheme created by Nikolaus Lehnhoff in 1976. The most dubious innovations included turning the Nurse into a serpentine devil in slacks on behalf of Silja, turning the would-be seductive Youth into a ballet-boy robot who does an awkward strip tease, and bringing on a chorus line of extraneous minor characters for the much delayed finale.

Jorg Zimmermann's gauzy old fairy-tale sets still look flimsy and kitschy. The new costumes of Jan Skalicky added some jarring mock-Asian embellishment.

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