Die schweigsame Frau

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Die schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman), Op. 80, is a 1935 opera in three acts by Richard Strauss with libretto by Stefan Zweig after Ben Jonson's Epicoene, or the Silent Woman.

Composition history[edit]

Since Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier, with the only exception of Intermezzo, all previous operas by Strauss were based on libretti by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who died in 1929. Stefan Zweig, who was then a celebrated author, had never met Strauss, who was his senior of 17 years. In his autobiography The World of Yesterday, Zweig describes how Strauss got in touch with him after Hofmannsthal's death to ask him to write a libretto for a new opera. Zweig chose a theme from Ben Jonson.

Politics of the opera[edit]

Strauss was seen as an important icon of German music by the Nazis, who had seized power over Germany in April 1933. Strauss himself was cooperating with the Nazis and became the president the Reichsmusikkammer in November 1933. Stefan Zweig had got to know Strauss well through his collaboration and later wrote that:

to be co-operative with the national socialists was furthermore of vital interest to him, because in the national socialist sense he was very much in the red. His son had married a Jewess and thus he feared that his grandchildren, whom he loved above all else, would be excluded as scum from the schools; his earlier operas tainted through the half-Jew Hugo von Hofmannstahl; his publisher was a Jew. Therefore, to him it seemed more and more imperative to create support and security for himself, and he did it most perseveringly.[1]

The fact that Zweig was a Jew was causing potential problems for the performance of the opera: in the summer of 1934 the Nazi press began to attack Strauss on this issue. Zweig recounts in his autobiography that Strauss refused to withdraw the opera and even insisted that Zweig's authorship of the libretto be credited; the first performance in Dresden was authorized by Hitler himself. Subsequent research has shown that Zweig's account is largely correct.[2][3] We now know that there was an internal power struggle going on within the Nazi government. Joseph Goebbels wanted to use Strauss' international reputation and was willing to relax the rule against works with non-Aryan artists. However, Alfred Rosenberg was more critical of Strauss' unsoundness on the "Jewish question" and wanted to remove Strauss from his position and replace him with party member Peter Raabe. Goebbels took the matter to Hitler, who initially ruled in his favor. However, the Gestapo had been intercepting the correspondence between Strauss and Zweig, in which Strauss had been candid about his critical views of the Nazi regime and his role in it.[4] This letter was shown to Hitler, who then changed his mind. The opera was allowed to run for three performances and then banned. On 6 July 1935, Strauss was visited at his home by a Nazi official sent by Goebbels and told to resign from his position as president of the Reichsmusikkammer on grounds of "ill health," less than 2 years after he had taken up the post. He was duly replaced by Peter Raabe, who remained in place until the fall of the Nazi regime. Although banned in Germany, the opera was performed a few times abroad, including Milan and Prague.[5][6] This would not the first time one of his operas had been banned: Kaiser Wilhelm had banned Feuersnot in 1902. Indeed, the propensity of totalitarian regimes to ban operas was not limited to Germany: a few months later in early 1936 Dmitri Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was banned by the Soviet regime. Although Strauss outlived the Nazi regime, Die schweigsame Frau was not revived in his lifetime.

Performance history[edit]

It was first performed at the Dresden Semperoper on 24 June 1935, conducted by Karl Böhm.

The work had its United States premiere at the New York City Opera on 7 October 1958. It was performed at The Santa Fe Opera in 1987 and 1991,[7] and also at Garsington Opera in 2003.[8] The Royal Opera House, London presented the work in November 1961.[9]

Roles[edit]

Strauss with the three leading ladies at the premier, Dresden 24th June 1935. From right to left, Maria Cebotari, Erna Sack and Maria Hundt
Role Voice type Premiere, 24 June 1935
(Conductor: Karl Böhm)
Sir Morosus, a retired admiral bass Friedrich Plaschke
Widow Zimmerlein, his housekeeper contralto Helene Jung
Schneidebart, a barber high baritone Mathieu Ahlersmeyer
Henry Morosus, nephew of the admiral high tenor Martin Kremer
Aminta, his wife coloratura soprano Maria Cebotari
Isotta, opera singer coloratura soprano Erna Sack
Carlotta, opera singer mezzo-soprano Maria Hundt[citation needed]
Morbio, opera singer baritone Rudolf Schmalnauer
Vanuzzi, opera singer deep bass Kurt Böhme
Farfallo, opera singer deep bass Ludwig Ermold
The parrot spoken
Other actors, neighbors

Synopsis[edit]

Setting: a room in Sir Morosus' house in a London suburb, around 1760.

Act One[edit]

Retired naval captain Sir John Morosus is very intolerant of noise after having survived an explosion on his ship. For some years he has been retired and living with his housekeeper who looks after him well, although he finds her chatter annoying. His barber arrives and after an argument with the housekeeper that disturbs Morosus, tries to calm down the Captain. He tells Captain Morosus that he should take a quiet young woman. At first Morosus is skeptical: is not a quiet woman like sea without salt? The barber assures him that he knows a dozen “quiet doves” who would want to marry an honorable man like him. Morosus starts to warm to the idea, when suddenly his long-lost nephew Henry appears. He is warmly welcomed and offered a room. However, when Henry reveals that he, his wife Aminta and his friends are an opera troupe, Morosus reacts in horror particularly to the idea that Aminta is an opera singer. The captain throws the opera troupe out of his house and disinherits Henry. He instructs the barber to seek a silent woman for him to be his wife the very next day and then retires to bed. The barber reveals to the troupe how rich Morosus is (“sixty, seventy thousand pounds”). Aminta says that she will not come between Henry and his inheritance and offers to leave Henry. Henry tells Aminta that he cannot live without her even if it means losing his inheritance. The Barber has an idea. What if the opera troupe acts out a drama in which the ladies of the troupe have the roles of the prospective brides and they enact a sham marriage? The Bride will then become very noisy and they will act out the divorce. Henry likes the idea: his uncle has insulted the troupe, so they will show him their abilities “and who is the fool shall be fooled”. The scene ends with a glorious celebration of the wonderful plan.

Act Two[edit]

The housekeeper helps Morosus put on his finest dress-jacket. The Barber arrives and reassures the captain that he has arranged all of the details for the marriage ceremony. He then introduces the three potential brides. Carlotta stands forward acting as “Katherine” a simple country girl. Morosus is not keen: she has spent too much time with calves and become one herself. The Barber next introduces Isotta, playing the role of noble lady educated in a wide range of subjects. Morosus is not impressed by this and is suspicious of her ability to play the lute. Lastly, the Barber introduces Aminta acting as the modest and shy “Timidia”. Morosus is quite captivated by “Timidia” and tells the barber “she is the one” and orders him to get the priest and notary for the marriage ceremony. Vanuzzi and Morbio act out the roles of parson and notary and the sham marriage takes place. Farfallo arrives with the rest of the troupe playing sailors who have come to celebrate the marriage, making a lot of noise. Morosus is driven mad by the noise and ejects them from the house. Aminta has become quite touched by the genuine love of Morosus, who wants to know why she seems troubled. Eventually, she has to carry out the barber’s plan and starts shouting at Morosus in feigned anger. She wreaks havoc in the house pulling down the curtains and throws some of the captains most precious possessions onto the floor (“away with this junk”). Then Henry arrives to save the day. He forcefully deals with Timidia, and assures his uncle that he will deal with everything. A grateful Morosus thanks Henry: he has survived many sea battles and hurricanes, but would not stand a chance against someone like Timidia. Henry sends the captain off to bed, where he doses off. Now alone, Aminta and Henry then sing of their love for each other. Morosus awakes and calls down: is everything ok? Yes says Henry. Morosus falls back asleep with a deep sigh which counterpoints with Amita’s sighs of love as the scene closes.

Act Three[edit]

The next day Aminta has hired “craftsmen” who make noises as they hammer nails and slam doors. There is a noisy parrot who squawks. In addition, she has appointed a pianist (Farfallo) and a singing teacher (Henry) who practice Montiverdi’s “L’inccoronaziano di Poppea” with her. The captain appears and is completely devastated. The Barber walks in and introduces a "Lord Chief Justice" (Vanuzzi) and "Two lawyers" (Morbio and Farfallo) who discuss the prospective divorce. However, “Timidia” contests the divorce and they reject every case for divorce. The barber argues that she has had relations before the marriage to Sir John and the two “honorable ladies” (Isotta and Carlotta) attest to this. The Barber also introduces a “witness” (Henry) who attests that he has had carnal relations with Timidia. Morosus scents victory and is about to celebrate when the lawyers raise a further barrier to divorce: the marriage agreement did not stipulate the virginity of the bride, so “you will have to keep her now”. Morosus is close to a nervous breakdown. Henry calls an end to the charade and all stop acting and all are revealed as their true characters. Aminta asks the captain's pardon. After the captain realizes he has been fooled his initial anger turns to laughter as he sees the funny side of a troupe of actors outwitting him. Overjoyed, he makes peace with the troupe of actors as they leave and gives his blessing to Henry and Aminta’s union and proclaims Henry again as his heir. He is pleased with himself and the world after his narrow escape and has at last found the peace he has longed for. The opera ends with a monologue of Morosus: " A rare delight it is to find a silent, beautiful girl, but it is more delightful when she belongs to another man".

Instrumentation[edit]

The opera uses an orchestra with the following instrumentation:

  • 3 flutes (piccolo), 2 oboes, Cor Anglais, D-clarinet, 2 clarinets in B-flat and A, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (contrabassoon).
  • 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba
  • Timpani,
  • Percussion (3-4 players) glockenspiel, xylophone, 4 large bells, small bells, side drum, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, tambourine, rattle, castanets.
  • Harp, celesta, harpsichord
  • Strings 14, 12, 8, 8, 6.
  • Stage band: Trumpets, organ, Bagpipes, Drums.

Recordings[edit]

Year Cast
(Henry Morosos,
Sir Morosus,
Housekeeper,
Barber, Aminta)
Conductor,
Opera House and Orchestra
Label[10]
1959 Fritz Wunderlich,
Hans Hotter,
Georgine von Milinkovic,
Hermann Prey,
Hilde Gueden
Karl Böhm,
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus
Audio CD: DG
Cat: DG 445 335-2
1971 Donald Grobe,
Kurt Böhme,
Martha Mödl,
Barry McDaniel,
Reri Grist
Wolfgang Sawallisch,
Bayerische Staatsoper Orchestra and Chorus
(Audio recording of a performance in the Nationaltheater, Munich, 14 July)
Audio CD: Orfeo,
Cat: C 516992 I
1977 Eberhard Büchner,
Theo Adam,
Annelies Burmeister,
Wolfgang Schöne,
Jeanette Scovotti
Marek Janowski,
Staatskapelle Dresden and Dresden State Opera Chorus
Audio CD: Testament
Cat: CMS5660332

References[edit]

Notes

  1. ^ Norman Del Mar, Richard Strauss. A Critical commentary on his life and works, Volume 3, London: Faber and Faber (2009)[1968] (second edition), ISBN 978-0-571-25098-1, translation of quote found on page 45.
  2. ^ Michael Walter, "Strauss and the Third Reich", chapter 14,The Cambridge companion to Richard Strauss, (Ed. Charles Youmans), Cambridge University press, 2010 ISBN 978-0-521-72815-7
  3. ^ Pamela Potter, "Strauss and the National Socialists: the Debate and its relevance", pages 93-115 in Richard Strauss: new perspectives on the composer and his work, (Ed. Bryan Gilliam), Durham N.C. and London: Duke University Press, 1992. ISBN 0-8223-1207-7
  4. ^ Norman Del Mar, page 49.
  5. ^ Zweig, Stefan (2009) [1944]. The world of yesterday. London: Pushkin Press. p. 401. ISBN 978 1 906548 67 4. 
  6. ^ Zweig, Stefan (2010) [1944]. Die Welt von Gestern. Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag. pp. 378–387. 
  7. ^ "Opera Archives" on santafeopera.org. Retrieved 8 April 2014
  8. ^ "Past Operas", on garsingtonopera.org. Retrieved 8 April 2014
  9. ^ "Royal Opera House Collections Online" with cast listing on rohcollections.org.uk. Retrieved 8 April 2014
  10. ^ Recordings of Die schweigsame Frau on operadis-opera-discography.org.uk

Sources