Review: Summerfest’s ‘Silent Woman’ humorous and human
The special joy of experiencing an artistic injustice corrected made Summerfest’s production of Richard Strauss’ neglected comic opera “The Silent Woman” a triumphant revelation on July 22 at the Winchester Thurston School in Shadyside. The only other chance to see it is at the matinee on July 24.
Strauss wrote the opera with librettist Stefan Zweig, who raised the old commedia dell’arte theme of an old man taking foolish romantic interest in a young woman to a new level. Cardboard characters are good for laughs, but Zweig infuses his characters with humanity without losing the humor. Strauss’s richly textured music is both witty and warm hearted.
The German opera “Die schweigsame Frau” (The Silent Woman) was performed in English in shortened form which made the drama flow easily. Jonathan Eaton’s staging was brilliantly conceived and featured boldly defined acting by the singers. He didn’t miss a comic turn and added a few of his own, such as having an on-stage character playing a harp dressed up as Harpo Marx.
Bass Jeremy Galyon was charismatic as Sir Morosus, a cranky retired admiral whose ears were damaged in battle and needs quiet. He’s delighted by a visit from his nephew Henry, but rejects and disowns him when he finds out Henry has arrived with his theatrical troupe.
That’s when the comedy takes off. The admiral’s barber concocts a plan with Henry and his company to fool Morosus by leading him to fall in love with Aminta, Henry’s wife.
Zweig’s libretto gives Morosus the wisdom to reject his barber’s suggestion that he needs a quiet young wife by repeatedly saying he’s too old, but the barber is clever and ignores him. Presented with three women from whom to choose, Morosus falls for Aminta. She’s very quiet and demure until a fake marriage is completed. Then she and her friends create a tumult that leave him shaking on a couch with pillows over his ears.
Galyon gave a big league performance of Morosus. The score is very demanding for the singers and orchestra, but Galyon handled the two octave range of his role with seeming ease. His resonant power was commanding at the start, then perfectly modulated to warmth and tenderness for a scene with Aminta. His pedal notes were spectacular. The ones at the end of the second act were comic. At the end of the third act, when the low note signifies the harmony that has at last been found in his home, he interpolated an E flat below the B flat written in the score.
Soprano Julia Fox also fully embraced Strauss’ sonic illumination of Zweig’s libretto. Fox can turn on a dime dramatically, and made her character’s remorse at tricking the old man after he’s shown such genuine concern for her completely convicting. Her singing was under powered at the start, but when she was fully warmed up she soared through the composer’s coloratura with piercing high notes designed to be intolerable to Morosus.
Tenor William Andrews was excellent as Henry, with just the right amount of sweetness to his voice, which was especially fitting for his love scene with his wife. Tenor Dimitrie Lazich was, as always, a real asset who made the quick witted barber come alive.
Mezzo Fiona McArdle was an excellent comic foil as the widow Zimmerman, who is the admiral’s servant. She obviously loves Morosus, and puts up with abuse from him and virtually everyone. Eaton ameliorated the cruelty by changing the end of the opera. Instead of Marosus singing contentedly of the calm in his house to his nephew and wife, he sings it to Zimmerman. They’re holding hands as the lights fade to black. Eaton is showing the admiral should have seen from the start she was the right woman for him. But then she’d been proving it for 16 years and was taken for granted.
There’s wasn’t a weak link among the five other singers of Henry’s troupe – Laura DellaFera, Migle Zaliukaite, Matthew Maisano, John Scherch and James Eder – who each created individuality and who collective contributed greatly to the comedy.
Conductor Brent McMunn led an astonishingly assured performance at unfailingly apt tempi. He led a reduced orchestra, but if the huge original orchestration had been used there would hardly have been room for the audience. There were a few slips in the orchestra, playing hard and unfamiliar music for the first time, but the overall level of performance was genuinely satisfying in tone, accuracy, articulation and spirit.
Fortunately the opera was presented with an intermission between each of its three acts, although as late as the printing of the program booklet the company had planned for a single intermission.
Summerfest’s production of “The Silent Woman” will be repeated at 2 p.m. July 24 at Winchester Thurston School, 555 Morewood Ave., Shadyside. Admission is $25 to $75. Details: 412-326-9687 or otsummerfest.org.
Mark Kanny is the Tribune-Review classical music critic. Reach him at 412-320-7877 or [email protected].