Conductors are paid to notice many things, from how the overall flow of a piece is going to all those technical details that must be brought together.
Something else has struck Brent McMunn as he’s been preparing the performers for Summerfest’s production of “The Silent Woman” by Richard Strauss. The opera is very rarely performed and will probably be receiving its Pittsburgh premiere. McMunn has never done it before. Neither has stage director Jonathan Eaton, nor any of the cast or orchestra members.
“After several weeks of rehearsal,” he says, “once we mastered it scene by scene, I’ve been seeing over and over the shared looks around the room like, ‘Wow, that’s really great music, and this is a really good opera.’ Strauss was a master.”
Summerfest will present “The Silent Woman” on July 22 and 24 at the Winchester Thurston School, Shadyside. The German opera will be sung in English. Run time will be about three hours.
Strauss is best known for his operas “Salome,” which Pittsburgh Opera will stage next season, “Elektra” and especially “Der Rosenkavalier.” He wrote “Die schweigsamme Frau” (“The Silent Woman”) from 1932 to 1934 to a libretto by Stefan Zweig. It’s an adaptation of Ben Johnson’s play “Epicoene.”
Although “The Silent Woman” was well received at its premiere June 24, 1935, at the Dresden State Opera in Germany, it was banned by the Nazis after three performances. Zweig was Jewish and Strauss had been too frank in a letter about his opinion of Germany’s new rulers.
In the opera, Sir John Morosus, an old naval captain whose ears were damaged in the service, is living a solitary and quiet life when his barber suggests he find himself a quiet young wife. Before he can pursue the idea, Morosus welcomes his lost nephew, Henry, at least until he finds out that Henry manages an opera troupe. The old man then throws him out and disinherits him.
The barber sets the action in motion by proposing that Henry and his wife, Aminta, trick the old man into recognizing his folly. She is presented as a “quiet dove,” but the arranged marriage quickly turns bad when Aminta proves anything but silent.
“The new angle to this old commedia dell arte plot,” Eaton says, “is that realizing the error of his ways functions as sort of a psychological catharsis for Morosus. It frees him from his previous inhibitions and concerns, and he becomes happy again. His problem with noise and high notes seems to have been therapied away. He can enjoy music again.”
Eaton says the opera is a hidden jewel in which the many ensembles provide the majority of humor, while the duets and trios provide a sweeter tone.
Bass Jeremy Galyon, portraying Morosus, says he was at first intimated by the lengthy role that spans two octaves but that he’s enjoying preparing it.
“It’s very funny,” Galyon says. “He’s a buffoonish type of character. He believes a silent woman, this mythological thing, is what he wants to fulfill his life. It’s a hilarious situation.”
When soprano Julia Fox began going through the score, she saw she had a massive and juicy role.
“I vacillated between a deep nervousness and a deep excitement,” she says. “It’s written for my voice, lyric coloratura. Now that I have it under my belt, in a way, I still feel the same two emotions. But Strauss knows what he’s doing. It’s just gorgeously written.”
Fox admires Zweig’s libretto for creating characters that are rich and true. “Aminta has a heart and moral conscience, and we really see her struggle about playing the trick on her uncle-in-law.”
McMunn shares the singers’ admiration for Zweig’s work.
“If you do a very short version of the story, it sounds to me a little shallow. But this was Strauss and this wonderful librettist, Stefan Zweig. We’re discovering over and over that he was a real artist. … You feel in the music and text how much heart and compassion Aminta has for the old guy. Morosus is not just an old curmudgeon. You really feel for him, and not just in the beautiful final scene. So, what we’ve all discovered is that ‘The Silent Woman’ is far deeper than a mere talky comedy.”
Mark Kanny is the Tribune-Review classical music critic. Reach him at 412-320-7877 or [email protected].