Metropolitan Opera House, New York: January 1, 2002–After the 1919 premiere of Die Frau Ohne Schatten (The Woman Without A Shadow), Strauss expressed his dissatisfaction with the work in a letter to his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, in which he noted, among other things, that it “lacked the necessary lightness of touch.” Boy was he not kidding! A heavy-duty allegory composed very much in a different shadow–that of the First World War–the two men wanted to write a happy work, a fairy tale about the joy in domestic life represented by the blessings of parenthood. However stylistically different, there is a curious historical parallel in subject matter with Poulenc’s post-World War II opera buffa Tiresias’ Breasts, another piece about the search for domestic tranquility that seemed singularly ill-timed. In the intervening years “Die Frau” (as we may call it for convenience) hasn’t exactly become a repertory staple. Historians generally blame Hofmannsthal’s libretto while acknowledging the music as top-drawer Strauss.

This of course isn’t quite fair. It may sound silly when oversimplified (though like all Hofmannsthal’s librettos the language is beautiful in itself), but there’s a lot in this story even leaving out the matter of its historical context: the age-old battle between the sexes, the question of being content with one’s lot in life, the need for honesty and real communication in relationships, and above all a celebration of humanity in terms of our ability to love and bring new life into the world. Indeed, the work’s real problem lies in its extraordinary musical demands. In addition to calling for an enormous orchestra (larger even than that for Elektra, indeed the biggest he was ever to use), Strauss wrote three atrociously difficult roles for his principal women virtually ensuring that the lengthy work (about three and half hours) could hardly ever be given without substantial cuts.

Though complex in the working out, the basic plot is simple. Two couples are in marital crisis. While hunting in the spirit realm, the Emperor captured a magical gazelle that turned into a beautiful woman. Naturally they fall in love and marry despite the fact that (unbeknownst to the Emperor) as the daughter of the spirit master Keikobad, the Empress has one year to secure a shadow for herself (rendering her mortal and able to bear children–this is the “gimmick” as Anna Russell would have said), or he will be turned to stone and she must return to her father. Three days remain, and the Empress is desperate to find a shadow, for which purpose she enlists the aid of her nurse, a servant of Keikobad. They journey to the mortal realm, to the workshop of Barak the Dyer and his wife (who is not named), a couple on the verge of a major breakup. Barak is a genuinely nice guy (but a bit dense), his wife a restless, materialistic, and dissatisfied shrew who denies him her bed, and thus parenthood. The nurse attempts to trick Barak’s wife into selling her shadow for gifts of clothing, jewelry, and a young lover. In the course of the opera, the Empress develops a conscience and refuses the woman’s shadow (thus passing her father’s test of her true humanity, and in the process earning a shadow of her own and saving her husband), while Barak and his wife reconcile.

If the musical setting represents Strauss at his most extravagant, Hofmannsthal’s scenic demands are hardly less so. Indeed, the current production solves the problem of the cataclysm at the end of Act Two (the earth opens and swallows Barak the Dyer, his wife, and his entire family while a magical boat arrives and spirits the Empress and the Nurse to safety) by simply leaving it out. This, however, is the only respect in which Herbert Wernicke’s magnificent sets, lighting, and costumes fail to serve the needs of the drama. In all other respects, they’re a revelation. The spirit realm is a giant mirrored cube decorated by various lighting projections. Barak’s run-down factory is, well, a run-down factory complete with a beer-stocked refrigerator. A metal staircase connects the two, though travel between them is clearly supposed to be “magical” in nature (otherwise one might think that the spirit realm has a fire escape). A red feathered dancer, all flailing limbs, represents the Emperor’s favorite falcon (it makes many oracular pronouncements), while the corps de ballet (only in Act Two) in funny black outfits with white stripes represents either spermatozoa or migrating calamari, I wasn’t sure which. Never mind, it’s visually stunning and works magnificently, effectively echoing the musical contrast between the two realms. The mirrored upper realm also neatly solves the problem of keeping a shadow off of the Empress until the appropriate moment.

In the vocal department, Deborah Voigt sang a superb Empress, culminating in a really impressive third act spoken melodrama conveying impressive dramatic urgency. As Barak’s wife, Gabriele Schnaut has never sounded better, her bright but rather unlovely basic tone controlled to the point where she did full justice to her great lyrical apotheosis at the end of the second act. Reinhild Runkel’s nurse was the most remarkable achievement of all, an impossible role in this uncut performance, but one in which she managed to hang on with honor and no little artistry until the very end. If she does this much more, God only knows what will happen to her voice. The two men, Thomas Moser as the Emperor and Wolfgang Brendal as Barak, both offered no basis at all for complaint, while all of the smaller roles were cast from strength. This was as finely sung a performance as we’re likely to hear today.

Finally, there’s conductor Christian Thielemann, a self-styled Strauss “specialist.” In two respects, he lived up to his reputation. First, he managed excellent balances between pit and stage, never covering the singers. Second, he has a good ear for texture, revealing lovely orchestral detail at lower dynamic levels and keeping the orchestra’s general sonority bright and clear. Like so many conductors these days, though, he seems addicted to slow tempos. Some of them must have made the singers’ lives very difficult, as for example the monologues of Barak and his wife at the beginning of the third act, but for the most part whenever the singing stopped and Thielemann had the field to himself, the energy simply seeped out of the proceedings regardless of the general loveliness of sound and the excellence of the playing.

Thielemann’s most disappointing moments occured during the great interlude between the two scenes of Act One (the journey to the mortal realm), at the end of the second act (the cataclysm), and in the first scene of the third (the nurse’s banishment). In these places, the orchestra simply has to go crazy and make as much explosive noise as possible. They didn’t, and the drama suffered accordingly, particularly in a performance that played every note that Strauss wrote and thus needed the big climaxes to carry the weight of so much quiet and delicate contrasting music. It wasn’t a hugely serious defect (Strauss’s loud stuff plays itself up to a point), and it didn’t compromise the fundamental excellence of the production as a whole, but just a tad more excitement could have turned a memorable experience into a truly great one.–David Hurwitz