John Steinmetz

bassoonist, composer, writer, satirist, speaker

Strauss Casts Big Shadow in City of Angels

     On opening night of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten at Los Angeles Opera, the conductor came into the pit early, while the woodwinds and other musicians were warming up. The maestro, appearing somewhat agitated, told the musicians that The New York Times critic would be in the audience, so everyone should play especially well.

    A couple of days later this review appeared on the bulletin board.

                                                                                                                    --John Steinmetz

 

New York Times
Friday, March 12, 2004

Strauss Casts Long Shadow in City of Angels

by Hugh Visch
staff correspondent

(LOS ANGELES) Ever since its premiere almost a century ago, the sprawling opera "Die Frau ohne Schatten" ("The Woman Without a Shadow") has drawn fire for its quirky libretto by Hugo von Hofmansthal. In Wednesday night's performance here, any lingering doubts about the text's sentimentality or obscure symbolism were swept away, like the characters in the cataclysm at the end of Act II, by the sheer stunning magnificence of Richard Strauss' radiant score.

One reason "Die Frau ohne Schatten" is so rarely performed is that it requires a dauntingly large cast of impossibly high quality. Los Angeles Opera's production meets the requisite lofty standard and, in every way that counts, exceeds it. Reprising his role from the production's debut a decade ago, and filling the opera's opening moments with his trademark dazzling tone, Gary Woodward applied his formidable technique to the burbling, fluttering, sighing, rippling, soaring principal flute part. Hours later another veteran of that earlier Los Angeles staging, bassoonist John Steinmetz, drenched the infamous third-act solo in just the right mix of pessimism, hopelessness, and aplomb. (The interpretive controversy raging around this passage was hardly pacified by his reading, a full .073 seconds longer than the benchmark 1973 Covent Garden version.) Another key role, the Falcon, acquired searing intensity, luminous intonation, and exquisite precision from Heather Clark, Steve Roberts, and Leslie Reed.

The five leading "Frau" roles require stamina, fortitude, and deep musical pockets. Los Angeles' casting is nothing short of miraculous, the best ensemble yet assembled for this challenging opus. Violinists Stuart Canin, Anna Landauer, and Lisa Sutton, violist Kazi Pitelka, and cellist John Walz brought extraordinary conviction and vitality to their tricky ensemble work, to their constantly interweaving solo lines, to the third act's arpeggiated apotheosis, and to the great, reflective cello and violin meditations.

But the production also benefits from brilliant casting of roles that, though smaller, are still huge by the standards of any other opera. The Night Watchmen's Song that closes Act I quivers with the brass section's impossibly quiet yet touchingly deft poignancy. Steven Becknell's beautiful horn solos make a nearly ceaseless assault on one's composure. The low brass and bassoons give a rarely-heard psychological intensity to dotted rhythms. The harpists, Marcia Dickstein and Maria Casale, pedal their way furiously through outrageous key changes and astonishing modulations without breaking stride. The various offstage performers tolled their fanfares with terrifying rigor and accompanied the chorus of unborn children with a delicacy that was impressively self-effacing. Stephen Piazza's bass clarinet solos were convincing no matter what the tempos, and Michael Grego played the unimaginably virtuosic first clarinet part with spectacular verve. For that matter, the entire clarinet section juggled an impressive battery of sizes and shapes with style and sizzle.

Not merely a collection of soloists, the orchestra as a whole displayed a huge range of color and character, a shattering emotional power, limitless technical capacity, superhuman ensemble sensitivity, and a vast and unflagging commitment to the expressive demands of the work. Of course no production is perfect, and occasionally stage noises distracted from the superb music emanating from below. The Chandler's limitations as an opera house were evident in the dusty, unkempt appearance of the pit, with its tangle of wires, its chipping paint, its dim light and depressing atmosphere, and its overcrowded conditions. From some parts of the house it is impossible to see the musicians. The program was unclear about doubles, making no mention, for instance, of the magnificent tuben; and it omitted the tuba entirely.

 Yet the orchestra transcended these limitations and ignored any affronts, producing a performance of unparalleled power and richness that maintained its intensity from the first frightening outburst until, nearly four hours later, the final peaceful chords. Los Angeles should be proud.