Cultural Olympiad continues this season with ambitious opera by Richard Strauss

” It’s possibly the most ambitious production ever staged by the Athens Concert Hall,» raved Nikos Tsouchlos, the venue’s artistic director, at a news conference earlier this week ahead of the venue’s presentation of Richard Strauss’s fairy tale opera «Die Frau ohne Schatten» (The Woman Without a Shadow). The opera, which opens this Friday, with repeat performances scheduled for October 14, 17 and 19, is being co-produced by the state-sponsored Cultural Olympiad, the four-year series of events leading to the Athens 2004 Olympics. The venue’s president, Christos Lambrakis, also at the news conference, underlined the opera’s political significance. «There could not be a more appropriate work that is able to stress the importance of peace in today’s era,» Lambrakis noted. Based on a libretto by the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, «Die Frau ohne Schatten,» which ranks as one of Strauss’s most complex and complete works, premiered on October 19, 1919, following the hardships of World War I. Danish conductor Michael Schnwandt, who will lead the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, one of Europe’s most renowned, for the four performances, reiterated the work’s political dimension. «This demanding four-and-a-half hour long opera, which will be presented at the Athens Concert Hall in its entirety, is a message of hope for a better world,» said Schnwandt. «It begins with the darkest of colors and passes through a world of the subconscious, before ultimately leading us to a landscape full of light,» he added. Schnwandt, who has collaborated with the Athens Concert Hall in the past, at the helm of various orchestras, but will now lead the Danish orchestra here for the first time, stressed the opera’s degree of complexity, and the large-scale orchestra, choir, and off-stage orchestra needed to carry Strauss’s opera through. «It’s a production which every opera house hesitates to take on as a result of the great difficulty involved in presenting it. ‘Die Frau ohne Schatten’ requires stage personnel of over 100 people and a team of accomplished musicians. It’s one of the opera repertoire’s greatest challenges for every opera singer,» Schnwandt noted. The production’s director, Michael Hampe, renowned for his past tenures with leading German opera houses as well as previous work here, described Strauss’s opera as one that «accumulates the quintessence of civilization, one that refers to Greek philosophy, as well as old Persian traditions in which shadow symbolizes fertility and continuity.» The work, he went on to say, «examines human bonds, the relationship between man and divinity, and is based on the utopian idea that, one day, all people will live in harmony.» Hans Schavemoch, the «magician of the Wagnerian scene,» as foreign critics have often described him, is responsible for the production’s stage design. For «Die Frau ohne Schatten,» Schavemoch has created a fairy tale setting that comprises three coexisting worlds: the heavens, inhabited by fairies and spirits; the earth, in which common man resides; and a distant, sheltered aristocracy. The costumes were designed by Carlo Tomassi. «I like playing around with periods and styles. This may not be proper, but it’s the way I absorb and express reality,» he told the conference. «For this production, I’ve used a wide-ranging palette of colors and fabrics capable of reflecting the lighting,» he added. The cast for the leading roles includes soprano Inga Nielsen, Ronald Hamilton, bass-baritone Franz Grundheber, soprano Eva Marton, bass-baritone James Johnson, and soprano Marilyn Zschau. The final performance, on October 19, will be televised live across various parts of Europe, while the event’s co-producers intend to document the performance on video for future release. As a result of the work’s lengthy duration, all four performances will begin earlier than usual, at 7 p.m.