SchattenRichard Strauss - Die Frau ohne Schatten

Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg 2011 | Christian Thielemann, Christof Loy, Stephen Gould, Anne Schwanewilms, Michaela Schuster, Evelyn Herlitzius, Wolfgang Koch, Marius Brück, Steven Humes, Andreas Conrad, Thomas Johannes Mayer, Rachel Frenkel, Peter Sonn, Maria Radner | Opus Arte

Die Frau ohne Schatten has long been considered one of the Strauss’s most challenging works to perform, and it’s such a magnum opus that one attends a performance of the opera – rare though they are – with a sense of high expectation. If you’re going to undertake such a work, it’s reasonable to expect that the production is going to pull out all the stops. The fairytale nature of Die Frau ohne Schatten however presents some challenges for the more experimental stage director used to modernising works, so it was always going to be interesting to see how Christof Loy was going to rework the story for the 2011 Salzburg Festival. Even by Loy’s standards for courting controversy through a very personal conceptual approach, the Salzburg Festpiele Die Frau ohne Schatten must be one of the strangest conceits ever applied to any opera production.

Not unsurprisingly, Loy dispenses with the fairytale setting entirely, ignores the stage directions, would appear to pay scant heed to the libretto, and instead sets Die Frau ohne Schatten in a recording studio in Vienna in 1955. Now, the idea of making the performance the performance, so to speak, isn’t anything new by the standards of Loy’s minimalist semi-staged productions, but this really takes the idea to another level altogether. The set is built to resemble, in meticulous reconstructed detail, the legendary Viennese concert hall, the Sofiensaal (destroyed in a fire in 2001), where, dressed in frumpy 1950s clothing, the singers here appear to recreate the studio sessions for the first recording of Die Frau ohne Schatten by Karl Böhm in 1955.

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Well, it does and it doesn’t, because although Die Frau ohne Schatten was indeed recorded in Vienna in 1955 by Karl Böhm, it was actually recorded, I believe, in the Musikverein, but, well, doesn’t that just add to the perversity of the concept? The theory behind the concept is considered in the booklet enclosed with this DVD/BD release, but I’m not sure how helpful that will be to anyone. I can’t make head or tail of it myself, and I’m used to and quite enjoy trying to figure out the often bizarre theories applied to modern opera productions. Are we supposed to be interested in the historical performers of the work and relate the tensions of the drama in the opera in some way to their lives? Or is it supposed to operate on a deeper philosophical level on the nature of art and performance? Whatever the rationale, there seems to be little justification for having singers stand at a podium and sing out to the audience in a work as rich and wonderful as Die Frau ohne Schatten.

First of all, it’s a little bit misleading to say that the singers just stand at a pedestal with the score in front of them and sing out to the audience. Replicating the activity in a recording studio, the performers stop to have coffee from a flask, drink a glass of water, take a smoke break, take off their coats, and walk in and out of the concert hall when not required on the sound stage that is marked by a red light during recording. Technicians meanwhile run around and adjust settings or place the singers into position, and there are numerous other extras and choruses filling the stage. Still, there’s not much there to suggest that the production connects in any way with the opera itself. Over the course of the performance however, while the action never moves outside the Sofiensaal concert hall, the story seems to take over the characters, possessing them, drawing them into the powerful emotions expressed in the drama and the score, and the distinction between the singers and what they are singing becomes blurred. It’s bizarrely fascinating to watch, but clearly not everyone will think so.

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There does seem to be some parallel drawn, perhaps, between the post-WWII setting of the recording of the opera and the time of its composition during the First World War. It seems no less extravagant to be recording such a work at a time of great privations (the concert hall is clearly unheated and there are no luxuries in the conditions or the sandwiches laid on for them), but like Strauss and Hofmannstahl’s intentions (whether you judge them misguided or not, since the work was not well initially received), Die Frau ohne Schatten is an attempt to reconnect through art with the finer qualities of human nature in response to the horror going on in the world at that time. It’s perhaps – and this is entirely my response to the work – the same recognition on the part of the performers in the post-war years of that deeper element in the work that hits the characters so hard, no more so than the confused Empress who is longing to regain a sense of humanity through the acquisition of a shadow, and the horror of the price that has to be paid for it.

Whatever the reason may be, Loy’s production does in some way achieve a strong connection with the intent of a work whose purpose and meaning has always been elusive and enigmatic. In the way that it mixes musical references, asks self-reflexive questions on the nature of art and dramatic representation and has definite philosophical and humanitarian leanings, I can’t help but think that the composer and librettist of such works as Ariadne auf Naxos, Der Rosenkavalier and even Capriccio (based on an idea by Hofmannstahl) would approve of such an approach. The model for Die Frau ohne Schatten according to the composer and librettist was Mozart’s The Magic Flute, but to all intents and purposes the approach is Wagnerian and it’s specifically Parsifal-like in its spiritual dimension and its theme of sacrifice and redemption. “There are higher powers at work” .

Those higher powers are there of course in the music, which, as Strauss intended, takes over where words cannot adequately express. It’s Wagner rather than Mozart that also influences Christian Thielemann’s conducting of the orchestra and the singing performances. Scored for an orchestra of one hundred and seven, Thielemann controls every element of the huge sound that is created by the astonishing performance of the Wiener Philharmoniker, sweeping and powerful at times, and yet full of incredibly intricate, virtuoso touches and more sensitivity and heartfelt emotion than you would expect to find in the strange fairytale nature of the work. It is utterly, utterly beautiful – as fine an account of Strauss’s most extravagant work as you could imagine. And as complete an account as well, the entire three and a half hours of the work presented here in full and uncut. Act III benefits most from this fuller presentation, particularly in relation to the roles of the Nurse and the Empress, restoring a balance to the work as a whole.

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This is not an opera for discussing the individual qualities of the singing voices. You don’t put on this particular opera unless you have singers capable of meeting its extreme demands, and you certainly don’t put them in front of Thielemann when he is doing Strauss. You could question the casting and singing that is also more Wagnerian than Mozart, but that seems to me to be appropriate for this work, regardless of what Strauss may have claimed were his intentions for it. All of singers are exceptionally good. Anne Schwanewilms and Michaela Schuster, as mentioned above, bring new depths out of the fuller roles of the Empress and the Nurse, but I was particularly impressed by Evelyn Herlitzius as Barak’s wife, who sings the role with extraordinary conviction and power. Along with Wolfgang Koch’s Barak the Dyer, the two of them manage to create that all-important sense of humanity in their relationship that lies at the heart of the piece. That’s evident also in Stephen Gould’s magnificent Emperor, the emotional depth of his ‘Falke du Wiedergefundener’ almost unbearable, forging a connection directly with the music score in a way that makes the intent comprehensible even if the fairytale context of the work does not.

As does Christof Loy’s staging, even if likewise it isn’t immediately apparent how or why. Either it works for the audience or it doesn’t (and clearly it doesn’t for a large proportion of the audience in Salzburg judging by the booing that greeted the production team at the curtain call here), but personally, I found it extraordinarily powerful and moving. It certainly won’t work for everyone and may prove to be a distraction while you try and figure out what point he is trying to make with its 1950s concert staging, but whether you think it works or not, it operates hand-in-hand with Strauss, Hofmannstahl, Thielemann, the Wiener Philharmoniker and with the singers to create the right kind of environment that draws the majesty and mystery out of the work and the music-drama experience. It’s all there and if you don’t feel the full force of it in this production, then you must indeed have been turned to stone.

While this must have been extraordinary to experience live in the Salzburger Grosses Festspielhaus back in July 2011, it’s to the credit of the recording that it’s also an incredible experience in High Definition on the Blu-ray from Opus Arte. The image quality is impressive, but not clinical, with a slight softness that suits it. With a full four hours compressed onto the BD50 disc, there are a few instances of minor wavering and fluctuation in lines, but only if you are looking for them. The audio tracks are PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and both are resolutely clear and powerful, with a gorgeous tone to the orchestration. There’s a certain amount of reverb evident in the acoustics of the stage, which seems to be more pronounced in the stereo option, the surround mix spreading the sound a little better, I found. Extras on the disc include a Cast Gallery and Thielemann in Rehearsal, an interesting 25 minute look at the preparations for the production with interviews. Subtitles are in English, French, German and Spanish.