Nothing To See Here–But Listen!

Review by: Albert Innaurato

Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 10

This is a great musical account of the note-complete (usually heavily cut) Die Frau ohne Schatten, produced at Salzburg in July, 2011. In fact, this would earn a perfect rating were it simply an audio recording. The production by Christof Loy is bankrupt. Frau is Strauss’ most grandiose opera, set to a verbose, symbol-ridden text by Hugo von Hofmannsthal—not crystal clear in meaning and here further obscured by Loy. Ignoring the plot itself, Loy staged the first recording of the work, from Decca in 1955. (Decca had to use a secondary hall, the Musikvereinsaal, unheated and dilapidated, but Loy sets this in the elegant Sofiensaele, which suggests that not even he took his “Konzept” seriously.)

There is some pretense of a recording session to start, but that is abandoned as the singers (carrying scores) have no choice but to act with only music stands and the occasional chair to set contrasting scenes. That heavily cut first recording starred some of the brightest lights of the Vienna State Opera at the time, especially Leonie Rysanek in her most famous role, The Empress, which she sang for another quarter century. But Loy doesn’t try for impersonations of these larger than life singers (and no conductor or orchestra is visible on stage). Instead, he concocts vague personas that more or less suggest the characters in the opera.

The Empress is a young woman from a rich family unsure of her destiny; Barak and wife are a quarrelsome married couple, evidently meant to suggest Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry who were not on that Decca recording, though they became famous for these roles some years later. The Emperor is an American star on whom the Empress has an un-reciprocated crush. The only analogy that almost works is the Nurse—and that’s due to Michaela Schuster, who is brilliantly able to suggest the aging woman who is possibly gay (she makes a funny pass at the Dyer’s wife in Act 2) but who somehow morphs into a demonic figure, devoted to the Empress while hating human beings. Surprisingly, these tough troupers actually triumph over the pointless, confusing production—greeted by what sounds like unanimous boos at the end.

Strauss calls for a huge orchestra, with some unusual instruments. It helps conductor Christian Thielemann that he has the spectacular Vienna Philharmonic in the pit, apparently mesmerized. They give him a silken, caressing tone even in many of the strenuous passages. When he does build to a mighty fortissimo it is the more stunning, and the sound remains beautiful rather than clattery. His control of rhythm and detail allow for wonderful specificity and a totally unexpected charm—as in the Empress’ entrance, a mixture of bird song (winds, two celestas) and quietly lurking threat (soft brass), or in the wonderful playing of the gorgeous D major theme when Barak and his wife feel but can’t express their love. And the bite and precision Thielemann achieves are evident in his frankly amazing control of Strauss’ longest exploration of atonality—the nurse’s meltdown in Act 3.

The cast is exceptional. The villainous Nurse, a huge part in the complete score, considered “impossible to sing”, is done with panache by Michaela Schuster. As The Dyer’s Wife, Evelyn Herlitzius has the necessary wide range and temperament; her sound isn’t pretty but it has impact. Anne Schwanewilms seems light for the Empress, but her sweetness of tone and manner is very touching in Act 3. Stephen Gould sounds bulky but secure as the Emperor, and Wolfgang Koch is lovely in the lyrical music of Barak, though his outbursts are somewhat underpowered. The many smaller parts (some of which have difficult music to sing) are well cast, and even the offstage voices of the “unborn”’ sound almost in tune—an achievement!

The recommended DVD remains the Solti from 1992, also from Salzburg. The production is a minimalist, variable but coherent take on Hofmannsthal’s story (directed by Goetz Friedrich). Solti is less nuanced and rhythmically supple than Thielemann, but he is exciting, and the Vienna Philharmonic is once again a powerful asset. Cheryl Studer, in her short prime, is a wonderful-sounding Empress, and Eva Marton is forceful if uneven in intonation and timbre as The Dyer’s wife. In a perfect world Thielemann would have been given a production that matched his insight and understanding.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Solti, Salzburg (Decca DVD)

  • Opus Arte - OA BD7104 D (blu–ray) or OA 1072 D (2 DVDs)
  • DVD

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