The earliest of Richard Strauss’s 15 operas—Salome (the third), Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Die Frau ohne Schatten tend to be performed considerably more often than most of the later ones. Of the later group, only the tenth Arabella and the very last Capriccio get produced regularly, at least in opera houses outside of Germany. Among the reasons for this decline in popularity were the composer’s age (he turned 70 by the time Die schweigsame Frau was completed), with some feeling on his part of a loss of freshness in his musical invention; the loss of his treasured librettist, the Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who died suddenly of a stroke in the midst of their work on Arabella; and the ugly and dangerous political situation with the rise of Hitler 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 highly regarded and successful writers in the German language, whether he might be willing to propose a subject for an opera. Zweig had prepared a German translation of Ben Jonson’s comedy Volpone, which Strauss had enjoyed in the theater. When Zweig proposed an adaptation of Jonson’s Epicœne, or The Silent Woman, Strauss concurred at once.
Although a number of Strauss’s operas contain humorous scenes, Die schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman) is the only one that is essentially comic, throughout, with elements of farce brought out in the production mounted as part of Summerscape 2022 at Bard College.
Jonson set his play set in his own time, the early 17th century, and Zweig retained the English setting but moved the action forward to the 18th century, a period that Strauss loved (as he had already demonstrated in Rosenkavalier). A retired naval officer, Sir Morosus, suffered injury to his hearing during his long military career, and he cannot stand noise. The doors of his home are covered with thick black curtains to suppress noise. The only other person living in the house is his talkative elderly housekeeper. A regular visitor is the barber Herr Schneidebart (“Mr. Cutbeard”), to whom the housekeeper pleads to recommend that Morosus marry her. The barber disagrees; this leads to a noisy argument that eventually awakens the master. The barber gets ready to shave him, suggesting that an inexperienced girl would make a suitable, quiet wife. Morosus is not interested. A noise at the door brings in Henry, nephew of Morosus, who had been studying in Pavia before dropping out and joining a company of Italian actors. Morosus is delighted to have Henry return; now he does not need a quiet wife. But Henry introduces his troupe (which Morosus first imagines to be a corps of military troupes): three men, three women, and an operatic chorus. One of the women is Henry’s wife Aminta.
With her arrival, we have the five principal characters and 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’s setting, that of Mozart and Rossini. He shapes the scenes in arias, duets, and other ensembles, and even makes considerable use of spoken dialogue in lieu of the secco recitativo of his Italian predecessors.
Morosus is horrified at the scandal Henry has brought upon his house. He disinherits the youth and asks the barber to locate a quiet wife for him. Unsure where to find such a marvel (none of the women in the Italian troupe is interested in a life of silence), he has the bright idea of disguising the three young women as candidates, with Morosus himself making the choice. The men can serve as priest and notary in a mock wedding. Aminta will be the sweet young thing who will, once Morosus believes they are married, quickly become a noisy harridan.
Thus Act I sets off the amusing plot, which already reveals in its events and its music references to popular Italian operas and passages form Strauss’s own earlier work. There are lyrical passages (such as a tender duet between Henry and Aminta) and rapid-fire comic ensembles, as as the end of the first act, in which the entire Italian company promises to help play this trick on old Morosus. (A delightful bit of staging here: A long pole crossing the entire stage is lowered on ropes from the ceiling, like a giant curtain-rod, filled with dozens of costumes; in Morosus’ absence, the entire ensemble cheerfully picks through the selection, each taking a costume suited for his or her role in the coming sport, ending the act in high spirits.)
The opera is well underway with a cast of excellent singing actors, who make the unfolding of the plot into a delightful farce. Sir Morosus, baritone Harold Wilson, is tall and physically amusing as he is first tricked and then made fun of. The barber (baritone Edward Nelson) echoes the famous Figaro in Mozart’s and Rossini’s operas, as a man capable of working out a complex situation to his own satisfaction. The housekeeper (contralto Ariana Lucas) tries to attract her master’s attentions, but mostly ends up despairing at the high-jinks that progressively envelope the house. Henry (tenor David Portillo) and Aminta (soprano Jana McIntyre) are a touching pair of young lovers at times, but also keep their eyes on the ultimate goal, particularly Aminta, whose sweet soprano becomes soaring, high-pitched shrieks after she has “married” Morosus. Her friends Aminta (soprano Anya Matanovič) and Isotta (soprano) and Carlotta (mezzo) are the other two candidates for wedlock, who carefully present themselves, amusingly, as entirely unlike what Morosus could possibly want.
The mock 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 tranquil. The members of the acting company burst in clad like sailors on a shoreleave spree to celebrate the admiral on his wedding day. Aminta is beginning to feel sorry for the old man, but she still has to play her part. She has many demands—friends her age, new furnishings, a coach and horses, nonstop music, jewels, and more. Henry arrives; Morosus is relieved and promises him the entire estate if Henry can rid him of this tyrant. Henry now sends Morosus off for a good (and welcome) night’s sleep, while he and Aminta once again sing tenderly to one another.
Act III takes place the following morning. Workmen (again from the Italian troupe) are re-arranging the furniture and pounding nails into the walls. Henry comes in with a music teacher to give Aminta a singing lesson, drawn, he says, from Monteverdi’s L’Incoronzione di Poppea, though 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, an ascent into the vocal stratosphere. The barber enters with Vanuzzi (baritone Matthew Anchel) as the chief justice (he had been the pastor in the mock wedding one day earlier)e, along with clerks and witnesses. In the hearing for annulment, carried out in amusing Latin, Henry is a witness disguised behind a beard who swears that he has had carnal knowledge of the bride. The ruckus 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 apologize sincerely to Morosus, explaining the trick they had played on him. At first he is angry, but eventually he sees the funny side of events and rejoices that he need not marry any woman, silent or not. He recognizes that a silent wife is best when she belongs to another man. After all the raucous events, the stage gradually empties and the orchestra grows tranquil as Morosus takes the hands of his nephew and nephew’s bride, and everything ends in peace content.
Die schweigsame Frau has many moments of amusement, and it has been staged are Bard with an eye to enjoyment, with comical turns in the discomfiting of an elderly man who makes an ill-judged decision to marry and almost does himself in. The orchestra, as always with Strauss, is deployed with lavish richness whether in the liveliest scenes of full-blown energy or the sweetly romantic scenes of the lovers, or the comic representation of the Italian actors in their changing parts. It is, to be sure, a quite lengthy opera. In a full performance, as here, with two 20-minute intermissions, it runs 4:45. Originally conductor Karl Böhm made several cuts to move the story along. Certainly in this very rare performance in the United States, a strong case can be made to hear the entire work, but trimming a few minutes here or there might be useful.
Still, the performance provided an enormous amount of fun, with a wonderful, movable set design by the stage director Christian Rath, who employed the various spaces and rotating pieces very effectively in setting the disporting of the large cast. Choreography was by David Neumann, costume design by Mattie Ullrich, and lighting design by Rick Fisher. The work calls for a large orchestra of 95 players. As usual in these Bard productions, Leon Botstein conducted his American Symphony Orchestra, with fine balance and pacing. Die schweigsame Frau is one of the less-frequently heard of Strauss’s operas, but it certainly deserves a hearing now and then, and this one was definitely worthy.
The run continues through the end of the month.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.