The Silent Woman (Die schweigsame Frau), op. 80 – opera in 3 acts

The two most prolific opera composers of the twentieth century were undoubtedly Giacomo Puccini and Richard Strauss. Puccini wrote altogether twelve operas, and his German counterpart, just six years his junior but outliving him by a generation, wrote fifteen. While Richard Strauss composed in almost every genre, symphonies in particular, the Italian master dedicated his career almost entirely to the opera, discounting some music for the church and a few chamber works. Although they had both been born into families of musicians, in his early years Puccini, whose grandfather had also been a noted opera composer, seldom had the chance to hear other than organ music at church and the sprightly marches of the military bands in his native rural Tuscan town of Lucca, near Florence. Born and educated in the capital of Bavaria, Richard Strauss on the other hand became acquainted with the operatic repertoire playing at the Munich Court Opera through his father who was principal horn player there. This variety of genres made a lifelong impression on his creative mind. Regarding the generic wealth of his fifteen operas it seems as though he was summing up his impressions of opera in the form of ‘anthologies’. In the course of his life he worked together with three librettists. The first, Hugo von Hofmannsthal died and was succeeded by Stefan Zweig. However, in mid-Thirties Nazi Germany, in spite of his pleas and objections, Strauss was forced to cut ties with him, so the librettos of his last operas were written by Joseph Gregor; eventually Zweig committed suicide.
It was Stefan Zweig who had suggested the subject of The Silent Woman to the elderly master soon after the two men had first met in November 1931. A true man of the theatre, Strauss instantly took to the evergreen theme that Ben Jonson had also adapted, offering him a brilliant opportunity to create a synthesis of everything he had learnt and thought about nineteenth-century Italian comic opera. Strauss was seventy when he wrote The Silent Woman. Only the greatest composers could create a masterpiece in the genre of comic opera at the end of their life, including some of Strauss’s great predecessors: Monteverdi Verdi, Wagner and the mortally ill Donizetti. In effect, The Silent Woman is none other than a Don Pasquale parody with a touch of The Barber of Seville and Figaro; the latter particularly for the richness of its ensembles. Translucently orchestrated and extremely melodious, The Silent Woman is brimming with musical excerpts and stylistic parody. In a letter written to Zweig in June 1932, Strauss rightly enthused about the libretto of The Silent Woman, saying he thought it was ‘more suitable for music than even Figaro or the Barber of Seville.’ In the libretto the main themes and characters – the elderly miser uncle, the foolish nephew and the seemingly na?ve but in fact ambitious girl – follow in Donizetti’s footsteps. However, the plot thickens with ‘volunteer helpers’, such as the shrewd barber from the Barber of Seville sympathising with the young ones, who, in keeping with the opera buffa tradition, is the prime mover of the plot. In terms of the music, the opera follows the elderly Verdi’s suit in that it is constructed from shorter, more fragmented elements rather than large-scale Mozartian melodies. The fact that the composer was well aware of this is clear when he claimed, ‘I am not blessed with long melodies as Mozart was, I only get as far as short themes. But what I do know is how to turn a theme, paraphrase it, extract everything that is in it, and I believe nobody today can do this as well as I can.’