Richard Strauss Die Frau ohne Schatten
All the cataracts, chasms, flying fish and stone emperors of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s massive fairytale opera posed no problems for director Christof Loy at last year’s Salzburg Festival. He simply discarded them in favour of a 1950s recording session in a freezing Vienna hall. How does this elucidate a subject which, for all its complex symbolic trappings, tells an elemental tale about two couples – one too other-worldly, the other too remote? Loy’s ‘personal plot story’, partially related in the booklet, is vague; you’re never sure whether the singers in the vast studio are playing themselves or the roles
they’re half reading from scores. Evelyn Herlitzius and Wolfgang Koch inject drama as a couple experiencing marital difficulties which take a bizarre turn in the dream-like second act. And at least the Empress, the ‘shadowless woman’ of the title, is central throughout, compellingly acted and luminously sung by the marvellous Anne Schwanewilms, though we’re never quite sure of the journey she’s supposed to be taking, nor of what’s eating her Emperor (a hefty rather than lyric-heroic tenor as sung by Stephen Gould). Michaela Schuster has fun with the sarcasms of the Mephistophelian go-between before unmotivated despair takes over.
Holding it all together are the clearly articulated text and a magic carpet of sound that’s laid down with assurance by Christian Thielemann. He lingers over purple passages, though they are always handsomely served by the Vienna Philharmonic. This Salzburg production is also remarkable for the way in which it presents the score in uncut form – like director Götz Friedrich’s earlier Salzburg Frau ohne Schatten, though less concerned with the supernatural. One way in which the film surely beats the live experience is by allowing us to see the singers’ faces, especially sharp in the Blu-ray medium. Orchestral detail has tremendous clarity and the documentary extra includes pithy insights from cast and crew – Thielemann is particularly illuminating. Even forewarned, you might enjoy the whole experience more than you think.