A great "Norma" will still be a vocal triumph more than anything else, but a great staging of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal's somewhat abstruse meditation on the joys and pains of humanity has the potential to be an artistic one, too.

Critical acclaim and box office eclat don’t often coincide at the Met, and such was again the case during this difficult fall season. The company’s much-derided new “Norma” sold out before the derision arrived, while its spectacular new production of “Die Frau Ohne Schatten” saw many empty seats even after the bouquets of critical approval hit the press. All things considered, things probably worked out for the better: A great “Norma” will still be a vocal triumph more than anything else, but a great staging of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s somewhat abstruse meditation on the joys and pains of humanity has the potential to be an artistic one, too. Herbert Wernicke, the German director and designer here making his Met debut, came tantalizingly close to providing one.

The symbolic cosmology of von Hofmannsthal’s libretto has proved difficult for stage directors to navigate, and it’s probably due to the libretto’s dense, sometimes confused layers of action that the opera has long remained a favorite of Strauss fanatics and a relative rarity on the stage (this production is only the Met’s second after its company debut in 1966, which came more than 40 years after the opera’s preem). Its vocal cast includes a god and his messengers, a bitter hausfrau, a prognosticating falcon, a trio of differently abled men and a chorus of unborn children.

The titular character, the woman without a shadow, is the daughter of a spirit king who has been captured and wed by a mortal Emperor. The Empress remains caught between the worlds of divinity and mortal murk, and, for reasons that must be taken on faith, she is given three days to acquire a shadow, a symbol of fertility and thus humanity; if she fails her husband will be turned to stone.

With the aid of a nefarious Nurse, she descends to the mortal realm (but wait — having married a man, isn’t she there already?), and the two move into the harried household of a dyer, Barak, and his loudly dissatisfied wife. While the Nurse tempts the dyer’s wife with visions of the eternal freedom and pleasure she’ll gain in exchange for her shadow, the Empress is touched and ennobled by the endurance and love exhibited by the put-upon Barak. In the end compassion is revealed as the purest and deepest of human emotions: The Empress’ discovery of her capacity for it saves both her husband and Barak and his wife.

Wernicke’s production succeeds brilliantly in differentiating the two primary existential planes of the opera, something other productions don’t always do. The metaphysical world is represented by a massive mirrored cube that stretches nearly to the top of the Met’s proscenium. It is furnished only by spectacular, ever-changing lighting effects (also by Wernicke) and starry projections. In stark contrast to this minimalist abstraction is the grittily realistic, latter-day abode of Barak and family, which rises from under the stage when the mirrored cube recedes. (Wernicke is the rare Met director who takes imaginative — and appropriate — advantage of the stage’s amazing breadth, depth and technical capabilities.)

The staging of the scenes in the messy world of Barak are the production’s real triumph. Aided by the exceptionally sensitive acting of his performers, Wolfgang Brendel and Gabriele Schnaut, Wernicke makes the case for the opera’s authors as penetrating, sympathetic psychologists of modern marriage.

The scenes between Barak and his wife are full of telling moments that reveal the complex interplay of love, pain, hope, guilt and resentment that link them together. The conclusion of the first act, in which Barak, exiled from his wife’s bed, stares into the depths of the open refrigerator as if it were a TV set, is breathtakingly poignant.

Schnaut, who sings with terrific vigor and power through to the last notes of this vocally taxing role, thoroughly redeems the opera’s most complex character from the Land of the Shrieking Strauss Fraus. (It’s a pity that her vision of a young lover is treated buffoonishly, however.)

In the celestial realm, the director’s work is eye-catching and spectacular but not entirely free of distracting lapses. In addition to sets and lighting, Wernicke designed the production’s costumes, so he’s to blame for the Emperor’s peculiar getup, a spangly silver and purple ensemble — with matching turban and eye shadow — that makes him look like Doug Henning at his most florid, or Liberace at his least. Having the falcon personified by a man in a red chicken suit, who flops hither and yon across the silvery expanses, was a bit of inspiration whose point remains obscure.

The director also hints at another intriguing layer of meaning when, near the climax, a series of light riggings tangled with wires glimpsed intermittently throughout the evening finally descends firmly into view; by revealing the artifice, is he suggesting that it is through art itself that we can be put in touch with the sources of compassion within us that are tamped down by the struggles of everyday life? It would be nice if this were made clearer; there are obscurities enough in this opera without the director adding a few more for us to take home.

Musically, the production was resplendent. German conductor Christian Thielemann, on the podium for a new production for the first time at the house, brought thrilling vigor and an astonishing clarity to Strauss’ richly textured score. And Empress Deborah Voigt’s incandescent soprano, so aptly contrasted with Schnaut’s more earthy tone, soared magnificently through the arching phrases of her music, creating a sound that in itself seemed to capture the essence of the opera’s mournful, tender sympathy for the knotty problem of being human.

Die Frau Ohne Schatten

Metropolitan Opera; 3,800 seats; $250 top

Production

A Metropolitan Opera presentation of the opera in three acts with music by Richard Strauss and libretto by Hugo von Hoffmansthal. Conductor, Christian Thielemann. Production, Herbert Wernicke.

Creative

Sets, costumes and lighting, Wernicke. Opened Dec. 13, 2001, reviewed Dec. 27. Running time: 4 HOURS, 35 MIN.

Cast

Nurse - Reinhild Runkel
Messenger - Eike Wilm Schulte
Emperor - Thomas Moser
Empress - Deborah Voigt
Falcon - Julia Faulkner
Hunchback Brother - Allan Glassman
One-Eyed Brother - Timothy Nolen
One-Armed Brother - James Courtney
Dyer's Wife - Gabriele Schnaut
Barak - Wolfgang Brendel
Apparition - Mark Showalter
Watchmen - Richard Fracker
Franco Pomponi - Richard Hobson
Voice - Jane Bunnell
Guardian - Jennifer Welch-Babidge

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