After a year’s hiatus due to COVID-19 in 2020 and a socially distanced 2021 season with many performances held outdoors, Bard SummerScape 2022 is proceeding apace with a full roster of cultural delights. High on the list of the annual festival’s brags is its commitment to the rediscovery of operas that have been lost to time. Throughout the last several centuries, plenty of fine operas have fallen into obscurity, victims to shifting academic or popular tastes, lack of financial backing or, in some cases, politics.
SummerScape’s operatic offering this month, which premiered on July 22 and runs through the 31st, is one of the latter: The Silent Woman (Die Schweigsame Frau) by Richard Strauss. His 11th opera, the 1935 work came late in Strauss’ career, when the Nazi party was ascendant. Following the demise of his longtime librettist, poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, he had composed it at the suggestion of a new collaborator, Stefan Zweig, who was a fan of Ben Jonson’s 1609 English comedy Epicœne, or The Silent Woman, and thought it would translate well to musical theater.
Strauss liked the idea and got to work with enthusiasm, but there was one little problem: Zweig was a Jew. In 1933, Strauss, who was privately anti-Nazi, had grudgingly accepted an honorary post as president of the newly founded Reichsmusikkammer, in hopes that the enhanced visibility would help him protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Hitler was reportedly a fan of some of Strauss’ earlier work and wanted to use him as a propaganda tool for the superiority of German culture. Goebbels considered him decadent and began undermining Strauss almost immediately, setting the Gestapo to spy on his correspondence with Zweig. When Strauss insisted on Zweig’s authorship being acknowledged on the program, state support for the production was withdrawn; The Silent Woman was shut down after three performances in Dresden. Strauss lost the Reichsmusikkammer gig and Zweig fled to England.
Although no longer banned since the fall of the Reich, The Silent Woman hasn’t been performed very often. It’s a good fit, however, for this year’s Bard Music Festival, which is celebrating the oeuvre of another giant of late Romanticism, Sergei Rachmaninoff. According to Christian Räth, who is producing, directing and doing set design for the revival at the Fisher Center’s Sosnoff Theater, “The Silent Woman is first and foremost a declaration of love to the art of opera,” making the work a good fit for SummerScape’s mission anytime, really.
The premise of the comedy is that a retired English naval officer, Sir Morosus (bass Harold Wilson) hates noise as a result of being shellshocked in a sea battle. His crafty barber (baritone Edward Nelson) tries to talk him into remarrying, arguing that a “silent woman” can be found. Meanwhile, Morosus’ nephew Henry (tenor David Portillo) has married an opera singer, Aminta (soprano Jana McIntyre). The old man finds her voice intolerable and disinherits Henry promptly upon meeting her. The young couple then schemes with the other actors in their company to disguise Aminta as the sought-after “silent woman” and stage a fake marriage to Morosus. Chaos predictably ensues, but everyone eventually lives happily ever after.
SummerScape founder/co-artistic director Leon Botstein conducts these and other opera luminaries, the Bard Festival Chorale and the American Symphony Orchestra in Räth’s new production. The costumes are by Mattie Ullrich, the choreography by David Neumann, lighting by Rick Fisher and supertitle translation by Peter Filkins.
Botstein will give a free Opera Talk at noon this Wednesday, July 27 in advance of the 2 p.m. matinée of The Silent Woman. There will be two additional performances on Friday, July 29 at 4 p.m. and Sunday, July 31 at 2 p.m. The opening-night performance on July 22 was livestreamed, and there will be an encore stream on Saturday, July 30 at 3 p.m., if you can’t make it to the Bard campus for one of these last few live shows. To find out for yourself why The New York Times made this “delightful” production a “Critics’ Pick,” visit http://fishercenter.bard.edu or call the Fisher Center box office at (845) 758-7900. Ticket prices start at $25.