Die schweigsame Frau
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
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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
It was first performed at the Dresden Semperoper on 24 June 1935, conducted by Karl Böhm. After the fall of the Nazi regime, the opera was revived in Dresden (1946) followed by Berlin, München und Wiesbaden.
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, and also at Garsington Opera in 2003. In Britain, The Royal Opera House, London, presented the work in November 1961 and the opera formed part of the Glyndbourne festival in 1977 and 1979. More recently, there were productions at the Dresden Semperoper in 2010 and the Bavarian State Opera, Munich, in 2010 and 2014.
|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|
|Morbio, opera singer||baritone||Rudolf Schmalnauer|
|Vanuzzi, opera singer||deep bass||Kurt Böhme|
|Farfallo, opera singer||deep bass||Ludwig Ermold|
|Other actors, neighbors|
Setting: a room in Sir Morosus' house in a London suburb, around 1760.
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: Morosus dismisses the idea of marriage and makes Henry his "son and heir". 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.
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.
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".
Stefan Zweig's adaptation of Ben Jonson
The story line of an old man marrying a young woman who turns out rather differently to what he expected has its roots in classical antiquity: the play Casina by Plautus (251-184 B.C.) being an early example. Perhaps the closest progenitor is from the Declamatio Sexta, a Latin translation of mythological themes from the Greek sophist Libanius. Jonson's comedy had been used before as the basis for an opera: in 1800 Antonio Salieri's Angiolina ossia Il Matrimonio, and in 1810 Stefano Pavesi wrote the opera Ser Marcantonio which in turn formed the basis for Donizetti's Don Pasquale with characters based upon the Commedia dell'arte (thus Morose becomes Don Pasquale who is based on Pantelone). Later still, in 1930 there was Mark Lothar's Lord Spleen (in German).
Zweig had discovered Ben Jonson sometime earlier, and had successfully adapted Jonson's Volpone for the German stage prior to being approached by Strauss for a libretto. Zweig used a German translation of Epicoene by Ludwig Tieck in 1800, with the subtitle Das Stumme Maedchen or das Stille Frauenzimmer depending on the edition.
Zweig's libretto makes several major changes to Jonson's play. The most important is perhaps the character of Sir Morosus. In Jonson, "Morose" is not a sea captain, but merely a rich old man with a dislike of noise. Furthermore, Morose dislikes his nephew (Sir Dauphine) and plans to disinherit him through the marriage. Zweig on the other hand develops a much more sympathetic character. Sir Morosus is a retired naval captain with a distinguished career: the Barber explains to the others that an explosion on ship caused his aversion to noise (and his capture of Spanish galleons the source of his wealth). Sir Morosus also dismisses the barbers initial suggestion of marrying a younger woman: he is too old and besides which he doubts the existence of a "silent woman". However, the Barber's arguments do lead him to see the emptiness of living alone:
- "Every Day, every night with oneself at home,
- No son, no heir, no nephew, no friend,
- No-one in the world on whom to attend.
- Yes that would be good to
- To know there is someone for whom one is real, for whom one breaths, to whom one confesses,
- Someone for whom one lives and for whom one dies,
- And is there when one grows cold to close one's eyes and fold one's hands,
- Yes that would be good.""
Morosus also loves his nephew Henry (whom he had thought dead): he would be happy to live with Henry and treat him as his son. When Henry arrives, Sir Morosus says: "My house, my fortune are his. Everything. Now I do not need a bride...neither mute or silent."
He disinherits Henry in a fit of anger when he realizes Henry is married to an opera singer and decides to follow the Barber's earlier advice and marry a silent woman. However, even after he falls in love with "Timidia", he asks her if she really wants marriage: he is to old for her. Midway in Act II before the "marriage" he advises Aminta to think carefully:
- "Child, listen to me!
- An old man is only half a man. His best half is in the past.
- His eye has long become sated with what he has seen, his heart is tired and beats softly.
- There is a frost deep in his blood and it lames the joy of living,
- And because he himself is stiff and cold, the entire world seems old.
- There is only one thing he has over youth: An old man is better able to be thankful."
After the marriage, he displays such tenderness and concern that Aminta is very moved and wishes she did not have to go through the charade.
The second major change is that in Jonson, the silent woman "Epicoene" is in fact a boy. Zweig has the silent woman as Henry's wife Aminta. Aminta herself is a major character in the opera. She shows her love and devotion to Henry by offering to leave Henry so that he can inherit his uncle's wealth. She also wants to love Sir Morosus as a daughter in law and finds it difficult to treat him badly. At the heart of Act 2, just before the sham marriage, "Timidia" speaks to Morosus:
- "Oh Lord, I swear by the holy sacrement: I feel I could be truly fond of you
- As one piously loves and honours a father, as one who has given me the best in life.
- Whatever I do, even if at first it seems strangely hostile
- I swear to you: I am doing it solely for your own good,
- And if I can free you from ill-humor,
- I will be the happiest wife on earth."
Henry himself is also very different from Jonson's heartless nephew: he loves his uncle, seeking his approval and is the one who calls the charade to an end when he sees how much his uncle is suffering. The Barber is also very different: in Jonson he is an accomplice of the nephew. For Zweig, the Barber is a good person who thinks well of Sir Morosus and is a benign schemer who drives the plot along. After the disinheritance scene in Act 1, he explains to Henry and the others "He is a thoroughly honest fellow with the best heart in the country". The planned deception of the marriage comes about as a way of "weaning Sir Morosus from his taste for marriage and return to Henry his inheritance..it is going to take a lot of effort to soap him up and cut this tuft of foolishness".
Zweig also introduces a whole new dimension into the dialogue which is the play on truth, perception and illusion. For the whole of act two and three until the charade ends, Morosus is in a world of illusion. The words spoken by the "characters" such as "Timidia" have a double layer of meaning: the meaning within the charade and the truthful meaning in reality which is hidden from Morosus (the audience can appreciate both). Thus for example, in the divorce case in Act 3, the issue is raised of "Timidia" having had relations with men other than Sir Morosus. Carlotta and Isotta are bought in as witnesses and swear that "Timidia" has had such relations. Aminta responds "Never have I disgraced the honor of my marriage". Likewise when the gentleman (Henry in disguise) is bought in as a witness, he says he has had "carnal relations" with Timidia, to which she again replies "I have belonged to no other man than my husband". These statements are all true when applied to Aminta, but appear to mean something else when spoken by Timidia.
The ending is rather different to Jonson's, where when Epicoene is revealed to be a boy, where a shamed Morose exits and his nephew Dauphine remarks dismissively "I'll not trouble you, till you trouble me with your funeral, which I care not how soon it come." In Zweig's libretto, the charade has served a benign purpose: Morosus realizes his folly and states "You did the right thing, rag a fool and thrash his stupidity". Morosus now has all he wants: a loving nephew as his heir, an admiring "daughter in law" and most of all the peace and quite he has been seeking. Thus the comedy is more about the transformation of the old man rather as in Charles Dicken's Christmas Carol where the fantastical events transform Scrooge. Sir Morosus has the final word in an aria which has become the best known part of the opera "Wie schön ist doch die Musik".
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
- 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.
Opera House and Orchestra
Georgine von Milinkovic,
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus
|Audio CD: DG
Cat: DG 445 335-2
Bayerische Staatsoper Orchestra and Chorus
(Audio recording of a performance in the Nationaltheater, Munich, 14 July)
|Audio CD: Orfeo,
Cat: C 516992 I
Staatskapelle Dresden and Dresden State Opera Chorus
|Audio CD: Testament
Robert-Schumann Philharmonie, Choir of Chemnitz Opera
|Audio CD: CPO
Cat: CPO 777 757-2
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- Norman Del Mar, page 49.
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- Del Mar, page 4
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- Del Mar, pages 5-6
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- English libretto, page 33.
- English libretto, page 34.
- Del Mar, page 6
- English Libretto, page 23.
- Del Mar, pages 38-9
- Del mar, pages40-41
- Recordings of Die schweigsame Frau on operadis-opera-discography.org.uk
- Casaglia, Gherardo (2005). "Die schweigsame Frau, 24 June 1935". Almanacco Amadeus (Italian).
- Kennedy, Michael, in Holden, Amanda (ed.) (2001), The New Penguin Opera Guide, New York: Penguin Putnam. ISBN 0-14-029312-4
- Warrack, John and West, Ewan (1992), The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, 782 pages, ISBN 0-19-869164-5
- English Libretto