The Silent Woman
Opera by Richard Strauss and Stefan Zweig
Review by Seth Rogovoy
(ANNANDALE-on-HUDSON, N.Y., July 29, 2022) – For anyone who thinks they can’t stand operatic singing, The Silent Woman is the opera for you. It’s all about an old man who abides by a one-word creed: RUHE (German for quiet). All he wants is peace and quiet and for the dreadful singing to stop.
The joke is on him, of course, and in the end it may be on you, for The Silent Woman, which just ended its run at the Fisher Center as part of the Bard SummerScape series, is an incredibly enjoyable, entertaining romp, one that avoids opera’s excesses while poking gentle fun at its conventions. The approximately four-hour running time sounds intimidating going into the evening, and although not everyone who arrived at the outset made it all the way to the end, some of us who had mentally planned to ditch it after Act II if it was dragging were totally enraptured by the music, the hijinks, the spectacle, and the story, and happily put off or entirely skipped dinner to see the wonderful entertainment through to its conclusion.
The Silent Woman has a fascinating history. Composed by Richard Strauss with a libretto by Stefan Zweig, it had its world premiere in Dresden in June 1935, under the Nazi regime and with its indulgent blessing. For various reasons, the opera was allowed to be performed three times—in spite of having been written by Zweig, an Austrian Jew who was the most popular literary author in all of Europe at the time—before being shut down and banned. Since then, it has only rarely been staged, not because it is difficult or controversial, but simply because it never had the opportunity to stake its claim as one of the greatest operas of the 20th century. Kudos to Bard and its president, musical impresario and conductor Leon Botstein for giving it the revival it deserves, with direction and stage design by the innovative Christian Räth, who finds a way to be loyal to the text and the context while making it speak to audiences with a contemporary accent.
The Silent Woman is a comic opera, but it is never buffoonish or archly pretentious. It is instead remarkably modern, even post-modern, with its play-within-a-play (within another play?) setup and its steady flow of zingers, with its protagonist, Morosus (sung sympathetically by Harold Wilson), referring at one point to “This ear-splitting noise they call opera” and having the last laugh when he begrudgingly comes around to appreciating the art form and says, “Music is lovely, but it’s loveliest when it’s over.”
The very first visual image features the word “RUHE” projected onto a backdrop. Before the show even begins, the multiple levels of irony are apparent—it is both an instruction to the audience to keep quiet and a statement of the opera’s theme and inner conflict. In case RUHE doesn’t get through to anyone, the word is soon translated into about a dozen different languages. The word RUHE appears throughout the opera, in a sign that hangs from the ceiling and a warning (request? order?) written over every doorway, where one would ordinarily find an EXIT sign.
In setting out to create The Silent Woman, Strauss, we are told, wanted to forefront the text, or at least give it equal importance to the music, which was rarely done before. That is partly why he turned to Zweig for the libretto itself, but also, as can be easily heard, much of the music is composed to the rhythm and cadences of the words themselves.
Without recapitulating the entire plot, the situation is that Morosus is a cranky old man who wants nothing but calm and quiet. He can’t stand the noise of the city outside his doors, nor can he tolerate the annoying noises of his own house, including his chatty housekeeper (sung with comic aplomb by Ariana Lucas). But he is also a bit lonely. Having enjoyed a successful career as a naval officer, which for decades kept him on the move, he never had time (nor inclination) for finding a life partner. Now, in his fading years, he wants to share his life with a woman, but he is torn between his desire for company and his need for quiet, for as we all know, women are noisy. (As portrayed here, the stereotypes don’t come off as offensive as they sound, and they typically come back to haunt those who express them. The joke is, appropriately, on them.)
Suddenly Morosus’s long-lost nephew Henry (portrayed with nerdy glee by David Portillo) arrives, and the uncle is thrilled that he at last has found the son and heir he has never had. But as soon as Morosus learns that Henry has along with him an opera troupe, he is enraged, disinherits him as quickly as he named him his heir, and tries to banish him and his company.
Here the fun and shenanigans begin, and with the aid of Morosus’s Barber (played with Jeff Goldblum-like sleekness by Edward Nelson), who serves as the master of the house’s doctor, therapist, confidant, adviser, possibly his lover, and, yes, his barber, the opera troupe comes up with a scheme to win over Morosus’s heart … and his considerable wealth.
The plan is put in motion and Räth’s staging and set design—with movable platforms and prosceniums within prosceniums, with splashes of Art Deco and innovative set-changes—are as much a star of the show as the terrific cast, including Jana McIntyre, who, as Henry’s wife Aminta and Morosus’s faux wife Timidia, is the fulcrum of the plot as well as an incredibly skilled and lovely singer and actress. While Morosus may want her to be RUHE, we can never get enough of her.
The opera is filled with startling set pieces, including a party where everyone holds masks, many of which portray historical or contemporary figures, including Bach and Beethoven as well as Stefan Zweig. Strauss himself winds up being flanked on either side by Hitler and Goebbels. Whether this was in the original staging or is a contemporary addition is not clear, but either way, it works and speak volumes of the real-life context then and how history has recontextualized the scene.
By Act III, the RUHE sign has been changed to MUSIK, presumably at the order of Timidia, who has also transformed Morosus’s boring, earth-toned home into a gaudy boudoir, with Morosus’s small, single mattress now replaced by a bright red, highly suggestive lip-shaped bed.
Yet still, all Morosus wants is peace and quiet and for the SINGING to STOP! (A man after my own heart.)
By the end, when the plot has been revealed to Morosus and he learns he has been fooled, he takes it all in stride, laughs, opens his safe, and promises to attend all the troupe’s operas.
As do we.