Richard Strauss: Die Schweigsame Frau (1935)

Komische Oper in drei Akten. Running Time: Varies from 2 hours 7 minutes to 2 hours 53 minutes (more on this later).

This one is for OperaScribe.

A German opera set to a libretto written by the Jewish author Stefan Zweig based on a play by the 17th century English polymath Ben Johnson, which was banned by the Nazis. Richard Strauss, whose only son was married to a Jewish woman, (with whom he had two sons, the last of whom died in 2020), was no friend of the Nazi regime. In fact, intercepted letters between Strauss and Zweig were sent to Hitler, who then utilized Strauss’ criticism of anti-Semitism and Nazism to then limited this opera to three performances (although Hitler had earlier officially approved of the libretto, and knew that he could not stop a composer of the international reputation such as Strauss without international outcry), and then banned it in Germany. At the premier, Zweig’s name was dropped from the original program, something Strauss protested, threatening to have the opera withdrawn otherwise, and the librettist credit was restored. Die Schweigsame Frau was performed in non-Nazi occupied Europe throughout the remaining years of the 1930s, but was only able to be performed in Germany following the end of the Nazi regime, when Strauss was able to take comfort in its new productions. Strauss once commented that finally, the opera had been released from the concentration camps. Strauss, and his relationship with Zweig, was probably made positive by the fact that the composer was so happy to be working with a comedic libretto. Never before had he been made to work with a truly comic scenario.

Although Die Schweigsame Frau is frequently performed and recorded today, there is only one studio recording (from 1977) of the entire score. In performance, the work is always cut by some 25-30% for some reason (much of the cut music consists of divertissement sung by the opera singers and written by 17th and 18th century composers, not directly relating to the plot, but complimenting it). This review is of the 1971 live-broadcast from Munich conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch, and has a running time of approximately 2 hours 7 minutes (which cuts almost all of this material).

SETTING: London, 1760. Far from its traumatic production history, the opera is a comedy centered on a retired Admiral, John Morosus (bass), who refuses to see anyone except his housekeeper, the Widow Zimmlein (contralto), his barber, Schneiderbart (high baritone), and his only living blood relative, his nephew Henry Morosus (high tenor) who was believed dead after he disappeared from the University of Padua. The Admiral prefers to live alone in almost total silence, thanks to a traumatic explosion which occurred on his ship years before. He quickly changes his plans to make Henry his heir when it is revealed that Henry and his wife, Aminta (coloratura soprano), are part of an Italian opera troupe including five other singers ranging from coloratura soprano to basso profundo. Henry (who is the only tenor) is disinherited by his uncle, who is shocked that he has gone into show business and Schneiderbart concocts a plot (similar to that of the opera “Don Pasquale”) to get John to “marry” Aminta in the role of “Timidia”, who will then be “divorced” from John after she makes too much noise (the Schweigsame of the title means “quiet” or “silent” in German) and Henry testifies to having had carnal relations with his “aunt” (who is actually his wife, so no duh he has had carnal relations with her) (this is a change from the Ben Johnson play, in which a boy is substituted, which causes the Admiral obviously deep embarrassment. In the end John is so happy to be free of Aminta (as his niece-in-law) that he restores Henry as his heir and all ends happily.

And yes, there are easy parallels to be made with Verdi’s Falstaff. A comparison of the two operas would render the Verdi work more melodic,

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: The living room of the home of Admiral Morosus. (45 minutes)

0: The overture ** is marked as a poupourri of musical tunes which will be recycled throughout the opera. This was the last part of the score to be written, in January 1935, and lasts about four minutes. To be honest, I do not actually remember any of them within the opera itself, but apparently that is the case.

9, 12, 14: Ding, Dong, Ding, Dong!/Es ist abend The dialogue between Widow Zimmerlein and Herr Schneidebart, the barber, is cut short by Admiral Morosus coming from his bedroom and ordering Zimmerlein out. Schneidbart shaves Morosus, who complains about the midnight bells *. The subject of finding a quiet young woman to marry Morosus (and replace Zimmerlein) comes up: Strauss contrasts Morosus (who sings all of his dialogue) and Schneidbart (who engages in a form of parlando for much of the time, except a rather lyrical section with an attractive French Horn accompaniment **) and a strong response from Morosus *** who feels that he is too old to marry a young woman (Schneidbart tries to convince him, saying that foolish women yes, but wise women would know that looks fade, yet money lasts), which morphs the number into a duet **.

19, 24: Henry?!?/Aminta ist meine Frau! Morosus’ nephew Henry arrives *, having been thought dead after disappearing in Padua (where he was attending university). He reveals that he is a member of a troupe (which he has brought with him) and Morosus thinks he means a troop of soldiers. Morosus is horrified! A Morosus on the public stage! For money! Worse yet, Henry reveals that one of the singers, Aminta, is his wife! Morosus orders everyone out of his house and disinherits Henry. He tells Schneidebart to find him a quiet wife the very next day. He storms off to his bedroom.

27, 31, 33, 37: Oh Gott! The troupe decides that they will punish Morosus, not so much for ordering them out or disinheriting Henry, as for insulting their art *. Schneidebart overhears them, but defends Morosus at first, saying that he is a very honest man, he just as issues with loud noises because of the at-sea accident years before (Henry is oblivious to this for some reason). Aminta feels sorry for her uncle-in-law, but Schneidebart then turns, telling Henry that he really should fight for his inheritance! He seduces the troupe ** with promises that Morosus has chests and chests of gold in his cellars. Aminta tells Henry to think of himself, not her, which prompts a rather wonderful tenor passage *** (this is Strauss, which makes it more unusual). Although it lacks a strong melody, the orchestration and musical texture are lush, with a Mozartean level of warmth. Schneidebart asks Isotta (another soprano) and Carlotta (mezzo-soprano) if they want to be the “bride of Morosus” and both decline, although Carlotta gets a good sustained F# (which is the highest note I can comfortably sing). It falls upon Aminta to play the part.

38: Silenzio! Silenzio! The troupe embarks on a concertate ensemble which ends the act as they plot out how they will trick Morosus as they praise Schneidebart for his master plan which they will now enact ***!

ACT 2: The Same, the following afternoon. (47 minutes).

0: The act opens with a scene * in which Morosus is being dressed by Zimmerlein (who begs him not to go through with this wedding to a quiet woman thing). She leaves and the barber comes in claiming success in having found the perfect woman for Morosus.

4: What transpires next is sheer musical comedy ** as Isotta and Carlotta play contrasting potential (yet terrible) brides. Carlotta is a country wench. Isotta a polymath with knowledge of basically everything in existence. Both are not a good match (and this is deliberate!).

7: Morosus is then introduced to “Timidia” (Aminta in disguise). She is just perfect, humble, and quiet, going to church only when the bells no longer ring and everyone else is gone *.

13: Morosus is left alone with “Timidia” and Aminta starts to melt a little (feeling sorrow for the old man, but remembering her part) **. The wedding contract is signed with the barber and housekeeper as witnesses.

22: A swelling ensemble (high coloratura from Aminta, including a sustained high E) as the wedding party concludes ***. Zimmerlein is sure something is amiss with all the other players.

25: Suddenly, the house is invaded by pirates! Actually, they are the chorus of the opera troupe, but they pretend to be former sailors who served under Morosus, wishing him best wishes on his wedding day **. Neighbours show up, led by Henry in disguise, making even more congratulatory noise. The Barber tells Aminta to get her act together, but she feels so sorry for the old man.

32: Nevertheless, the first time he pronounces her name after their wedding, she shrieks on a high C and transforms into a shrew demanding first quiet, then a carriage with three horses, and constant music; then starts to throw around naval moments Morosus has been maintaining for years.

38: Henry arrives and Morosus begs him to get rid of “Timidia”. He chases her out of the house and then takes Morosus up to bed to sleep, which prompts a good, if brief, sleepy symphony *.

40: The remainder of the act consists of a trio ** between Henry and Aminta in which they repeat much of the same feelings they displayed earlier (Aminta hates the deception, Henry loves his wife) and an off-stage Morosus. Strauss provides Henry with what are probably his finest tenor vocal work here. Morosus is heard from the bedroom asking if Henry is still on guard, and he responds in the affirmative, his uncle thanking him. Although there really is no great melody here, Strauss does pull off a rather good theatrical vocal effect by having Aminta and Morosus sing on the word “Dank/Thanks” four octaves apart at the end.

ACT 3: The Same, the following morning. (32 minutes).

0: A furious prelude * leads in directly to “Timidia” redecorating the house and then Henry comes in and they rehearse a duet from Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea in which Aminta brings down the house with yet another High E! One section that has obviously been cut here is a Cockatoo bird which Aminta has placed in her “husband’s” bedchamber. A series of musical numbers: a duet and two aria from operas by Legrenzi, were plundered by Strauss and included in a bit of opera plagiarism and have been cut in this performance (and ALL performances apart from the 1977 recording which somehow got over the plagiarism somehow) is included in the opera at this point to fill out the act before the the Chief Justice is announced by the Barber.

6, 12, 14: Farfallo, the troupe leader, arrives as the Chief Justice to hold an annulment trial *. At first Isotta and Carlotta testify against “Timidia”. This culminates in Henry (dressed as a dandy, in high tenor and a mustache) testifying in graphic detail as to how he he took the virginity of “Lady Morosus” and has “known her carnally” **. Aminta then ironically answers truthfully that she has been touched by no man save her husband, Mr. Morosus (because, it’s Henry Morosus, duh!). This prompts a lovely aria from Henry ***. This scene (in my opinion in the best in the opera) is just adorably marital and would be a great meta setup for a soprano-tenor real-life married couple as the soprano keeps denying having had sex with the tenor, who keeps making amorous protestations to the contrary. Eventually, Aminta admits to have been “betrayed” by the dandy and Morosus is given his grounds for annulment (which gets overturned, causing the Admiral to collapse).

19, 27: The resolution: 1) Henry removes his disguise and reveals the plot to his uncle with some welcomed high tenor ***. 2) Aminta gives a heartfelt apology to Morosus for the torture he went through at her hand. 3) Realizing that he is not actually married and the marry to “Timidia” was totally fake and illegal (not to mention bigamous at the very least), causes the old man to laugh very hard. 4) Everyone drinks. 5) Everyone leaves except for the three Morosus and Widow Zimmerlein, and the music takes on a refreshingly Mozartean clarity which continues to the end of the opera ***. Admiral Morosus starts to smoke a pipe, the young couple go upstairs, and Morosus falls asleep. Curtain.

COMMENTS:

Let us weight the pros and cons now. The cons are that the work lacks any memorable tunes, the plot is dangerously close to Don Pasquale (what is more it falls into that peculiarly German phenomena of being a glacially slow comedic work with a slim plot line), and it appears that Strauss poached around a quarter of the score from other composers who had already been dead for two centuries at least (although that seems to only impact complete productions, of which there hasn’t been since the 1930s, discounting the 1977 recording). The pros are the usual lush Richard Strauss orchestration (which here possesses a Mozartean level of cool water-like clarity), memorable characters with three dimensional development, and probably the best (and certainly the most kindly written) Strauss tenor role ever! If there are whiffs of Pasquale there are also mementos of Falstaff here. What is more Aminta is NOT Norina. Aminta constantly makes reference to the fact that she hates treating Morosus badly and clearly feels sorry for him. That she is already his niece-in-law makes the bizarre charade more cozy. The relationship between Henry and Aminta is possibly one of the healthiest among married opera folk, and the hilarity of the trial could easily break the fourth wall if given the right casting. Who doesn’t want to see a soprano having her sexual history put on trial with her tenor husband testifying? And the opposite would be just as amusing! What is more, Strauss is in his element with characters, all but three in a cast of ten, who are all opera singers!

If Arabella reminded me of Jezebel and Bette Davis, this opera reminds me of a film which was released only two years later, The Great Garrick. It is no secret that I love the late Olivia de Havilland, who co-starred with her future brother-in-law Brian Aherne in a film in which artists of the Comedie Francaise pretend to be hotel staff only for de Havilland (as a runaway noblewoman) to crash their plot to get back at a snubbing by Garrick of the French theatrical establishment. Granted, then we had Enrich Wolfgang von Korngold providing the score, but I think that the obvious quotation from Don Juan within the first twenty seconds of the film is more than a direct connection to Richard Strauss.

I wish that a bit more of Widow Zimmerlein had been included. There is more material for her in the forty minutes or so that was cut which would have fleshed her own a bit more as a character and her desired relationship with her employer. I am not sure why Strauss never thought to match them up, especially since Morosus is obviously an author self-insert character.

The best moments of Die Schweigsame Frau are not so much the most melodic (there really aren’t any) as they are the most well crafted (both vocally and orchestrally) and suited to depict the very human emotions of the characters (or, to a lesser extent, the parts they are playing). It is also a rather touching homage by Strauss, long considered the last surviving of the great operatic composers having lived until 1949, for the great Austrian and Italian composers who had gone before him (in this instance Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, and Verdi). That Strauss was, for this one time at least, generous to the tenor voice, is enough for me to like this opera, even if I might not love it.

A-.

SOURCE CONSULTED:

Osborne, Charles. The Complete Operas of Richard Strauss: A Critical Guide. Grange Books, London: 1988. Chapter 11: Die Schweigsame Frau. pages 169-174, 176-177, 185-193.

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