ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — “Ha! A silent woman?,” sings the basso buffo Morosus in Richard Strauss’s “Die Schweigsame Frau.” “You’ll only find her in a churchyard under a stone cross.”
The casual misogyny of Strauss’s only opera buffa — a work that unfolds like a love letter to Mozart, Rossini and Donizetti — was hardly a point of controversy when it premiered in Dresden in 1935. But controversy there was: The opera’s libretto was written by Stefan Zweig, a Jew, who submitted it two weeks before Adolf Hitler became Germany’s chancellor in 1933.
On Friday night, Bard SummerScape unveiled a rare staging of “The Silent Woman” at Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College that went some way toward reconciling the featherlight subject and its fraught historical context. The witty staging, engaging cast and efficiently evocative designs made a good opera feel like a great one.
Much has been written about Strauss’s miscalculations with regards to the Nazi regime, his attempts to stay out of politics while currying favor and protecting his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandsons.
He accepted the presidency of the Reich Chamber of Music, a post he later described as a “tiresome honorary office” in a letter that got him into hot water. In his notebooks, he called Nazi antisemitism “a disgrace to German honor.” Ultimately, he underestimated the National Socialist dictatorship as a political fashion, a nuisance affecting his work with Zweig, who was forced to flee the country.
Strauss, who once thought his creativity wouldn’t survive the sudden death of his beloved librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, wrote to Zweig: “If you abandon me, too, I’ll have to lead from now on the life of an ailing, unemployed retiree.”
According to a letter from Strauss, Joseph Goebbels and Hitler, presumably finding nothing subversive in “Frau,” approved it. After Strauss insisted that Zweig’s name appear on the program book, the propagandist and his boss skipped the premiere. It was only after Strauss expressed his dim view of Nazism in a letter intercepted by the Gestapo that the opera was banned.
In 1942, Zweig, under pain of exile in Brazil, took his own life. Strauss, defeated by the bombing of Germany’s opera houses and the collapse of its culture, nonetheless had music left in him, including his Horn Concerto No. 2 and the “Four Last Songs.”
Against this backdrop we have “Die Schweigsame Frau,” an opera about the retired admiral Morosus, whose tinnitus makes him a world-class grouch who can’t bear the tolling of church bells or the idea of a nagging spouse. Zweig supplied an Italianate comedy without psychological underpinning, and Strauss was delighted.
When Morosus’s nephew Henry shows up with his theater troupe, Morosus, appalled at Henry’s chosen career, disinherits him and insults his wife, Aminta. The troupe teaches him a lesson recognizable from Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”: Aminta, disguised as a demure ingénue, marries Morosus in a sham ceremony and proceeds to throw tantrums and turn his life upside-down until he begs for mercy.
For Bard’s delightful production, the director and set designer Christian Räth stages “Frau” as an opera about putting on an opera. Stagehands execute scene changes in full view of the audience, and Morosus’s single-word mantra, “Ruhe” (quiet), glows like an exit sign above the doors of his orderly home.
The deception of Morosus becomes a show itself. The theater troupe riffles through clothing racks from other Strauss productions for their costumes. Morosus auditions his three potential brides-to-be on a mini-replica of the stage where “Frau” had its 1935 premiere, presenting the winner with a silver rose straight out of Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” (and “The Bachelor”).
The troupe — and the cast — fully commits to its roles. Harold Wilson commands a sonorous bass as the proud, endearing Morosus. Jana McIntyre (Aminta) and David Portillo (Henry) sing with bright, earnest lyric voices that hint at stridency under Strauss’s demands. Edward Nelson, sounding handsome and polished, turns the Barber into an unusually compelling factotum. Matthew Anchel, a riot as the impresario Vanuzzi, shows an appealingly compact bass with depth of tone. Ariana Lucas (Housekeeper), Chrystal E. Williams (Carlotta) and Anya Matanovic (Isotta) delve zestfully into their characters.
Mattie Ullrich’s funny, dazzling costumes transformed the cast, including a male corps de ballet that never missed a chance to shake their platter tutus.
Strauss underscored spoken dialogue with arch instrumental commentary, but the orchestra, at times hamstrung by his sumptuous style and parlando vocal lines, shifts its weight like an elephant in ballet shoes. At Bard, the conductor Leon Botstein, deprioritizing tonal grandeur, showed the opera to be light on its feet. The overture’s quirky doodling emerged fast and clean, and the magical duet-turned-trio that ends Act II lilted, with Straussian wafts of pungent woodwinds.
Räth, injecting resistance into a work that was politicized despite itself, turned the chaotic wedding scene into a nightmare sequence: Choristers and dancers swarmed the stage with large face masks of real-life personages (including Mozart, Bach, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Maria Cebotari, the first Aminta). Ominously, the masks of Hitler and Goebbels flanked a mask of Strauss and carted him off by the elbows.
The opera closes with a reflection far removed from the prevailing mayhem, not unlike the glorious final monologue from Strauss’s last opera, “Capriccio.”
As the strings swelled, Wilson’s Morosus stepped forward, offering a glimpse of peace, sung with touching restraint, from an ailing, unemployed retiree at the end of his life. In his hands he held the masks of Strauss and Zweig, forced apart by murderous bigotry, reunited at last.
The Silent Woman
Through Sunday at Bard College; fishercenter.bard.edu.