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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow)
(1919)
Opera in 3 acts, libretto by Hugo von Hoffmannsthal (1874-1929)
Der Kaiser (The Emperor) Thomas Moser - tenor
Die Kaiserin (The Empress) Cheryl Studer - soprano
Die Amme (The Nurse) Marjana Lipovšek - mezzo
Der Geisterbote (The Spirit messenger) Bryn Terfel - baritone
Barak, der Färber (Barak the dyer) Robert Hale - baritone
Seine Frau (His wife) Eva Marton - soprano
Die Stimme des Falken (The Falcon’s voice) Andrea Rost - soprano
Die Erscheinung eines Jünglings (The Apparition of a Young Man) Herbert Lippert - tenor
Eine Stimme von Oben (A Voice from Above) Elzbieta Ardam - alto
Der Hüter der Schwelle (The Guardian of the Threshold) Elizabeth Norberg Schulz - soprano
Baraks Brüder: (Barak’s 3 Brothers):
Der Einaügige (The One-Eyed) Manfred Hemm - bass
Der Einarmige (The One-Armed) Hans Franzen - bass
Der Bucklige (The Hunchback) Wilfried Gahmlich - tenor
Die Stimmen der Ungeborenen (Voices of Unborn Children): Carmen Fuggis, Petra Schnitzer, Dalia Schaechter, Rannveig Braga, Noriko Sasaki, Dienerinnen (Servants) Carmen Fuggis, Petra Schnitzer, Dalia Schaechter
Die Stimmen der Wächter (The Voices of the Watchmen): Gerhard Eder, Karl Nebenführ, Wolfgang Scheider
Solo-Stimmen (Solo Voices): Carmen Fuggis, Birgit beer, Petra Schnitzer, Dalia Schaechter, Rannveig Braga, Moriko Sasaki
Vienna State Opera Chorus, chorus master Peter Burian, Salzburg Children’s Choir
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
Directed by Götz Friedrich. Directed for television by Brian Large
Recorded live at the 1992 Salzburg Summer Festival
DECCA DVD 071 425-9 DH2 [203:00]
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Die Frau ohne Schatten was Strauss’s third full operatic collaboration with the brilliant writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who referred to the piece as "our Magic Flute". They took an uncommonly long time to complete the project; Hofmannsthal first mooted the idea of a ‘magic fairy-tale’ in 1911, but what with one thing and another (such as the ‘Alpine Symphony’ and World War I, to name but two!), the Viennese premiere did not take place until 1919.

Hofmannsthal’s reference to the Magic Flute is easy to understand. Both works are essentially hymns to the institution of marriage, and bear the subtext "Be fruitful and multiply!" But whereas Mozart’s late masterpiece is light in its moral touch, leavened by an almost Pythonesque humour, Die Frau seems joyless, even leaden by comparison. Strauss used massive orchestral and vocal forces, though in fairness one should point out that textures are often like chamber-music in their delicacy and abundance of detail.

The story in brief: the shadowless Empress, the eponymous ‘woman’, is the daughter of Keikobad, ruler of the spirit world (who never appears in the opera). She has married the Emperor, who rules the South Eastern islands. She has, however, yet to become wholly human by developing a shadow like other mortals (a metaphor here for becoming pregnant). Keikobad, via his Messenger, gives her three days to find a shadow, warning her that, if she does not do so, she will have to return to the spirit world, and her husband the Emperor will be turned to stone.

The rest of the opera concerns the Empress’s attempts, with the help of her wily Nurse, to obtain the shadow of a mortal woman, the Wife of Barak, a humble dyer. Finally, she refuses to deprive Barak’s wife of her shadow, and Keikobad, realising that the Empress has thus demonstrated her essential humanity, relents and removes his curse from her and the Emperor.

Die Frau is a lengthy (nigh on three and a half hours) and involved work, which even the most ardent Strauss fan will have to admit has its extreme longueurs. Ironically, this 19th century Magic Flute is also in another sense the most Wagnerian of Strauss’s operas, in the way it pursues so unremittingly its worthy and somewhat convoluted story. Hofmannsthal was undoubtedly a brilliantly talented writer, but he seems to have lost his sense of theatrical reality here; there is simply too much plot, too many details. The odd result is – or perhaps not so odd – that when the clinching moment in Act III is reached, and the Emperor is released from his stone carapace, there is a huge sense of bathos; and, fine though this performance is, there is absolutely nothing that Georg Solti, Götz Friedrich or the cast can do to avoid the catastrophic feeling of anti-climax at this crucial moment. Sunk beneath the water-line.

Yet the wonder of opera, as an art form, is that, despite fundamental structural problems like this, it can still entertain hugely along the way. Indeed, Mozart’s Magic Flute itself has similar deep-rooted difficulties, mainly regarding the characters of Sarastro and the Queen of the Night, both of whom undergo radical changes during the course of the opera (Queen of the Night from good to evil, Sarastro from evil to good). But the sheer charm of Mozart’s music, its ceaseless wit and inventiveness carries the day with no difficulty.

Is the same true of Die Frau ohne Schatten? The answer is ‘not quite’; ultimately, the work, unlike Mozart’s model, overstays its welcome, risks boring us by virtue of its convoluted, earnestly symbolic plot. Yet there are plenty of purely musical compensations which make it worth the effort for the committed listener/viewer. The Emperor’s first solo appearance, as he prepares to go off hunting, features one of Strauss’s finest ‘maestoso’ melodies; the journey of the Empress and Nurse to the land of the humans occasions a brilliantly evocative orchestral interlude, reminiscent of the descent into Niebelheim in Wagner’s Das Rheingold; and the duet between Barak the dyer and his wife, separated by prison walls in Act 3, is genuinely moving. These are just a few of the highlights which await you, if you have the patience to endure some of the less striking passages.

What of this performance? It is magnificently conducted by Solti, who, in his later years, had developed a profound understanding of the pacing of an operatic score. He gives the dramatic and spectacular aspects of the work free reign, while keeping things moving forward. He has a splendid cast, of whom Marjana Lipovšek as the scheming Nurse and Eva Marton as the down-trodden Wife of Barak stand out. The latter is vocally and dramatically convincing in what is a most demanding and lengthy role.

In the central role of the Empress, Cheryl Studer, a fine and experienced dramatic soprano, would be much more than acceptable if this were just an audio recording. She sings with power, intensity and considerable expression. But this is a DVD, and her acting comes over as wooden and ‘ham’, and her ill-advised barefoot ranging around the stage (presumably not her idea. Ed.) only serves to emphasise that she is - how can I put it - not small. I don’t normally have a problem with singers who are less than sylph-like; we come to hear them sing not speak their weight. But the production and her costumes make her seem clumsy, which undermines the credibility of the story; the Empress should have an other-worldly quality, with no shadow and little or no specific gravity.

Some of the minor parts are superbly cast, e.g. Bryn Terfel as the Spirit messenger, and Andrea Rost as the Falcon. The production is visually arresting in the usual manner of Friedrich’s work. Lots of hemispheres and wide, empty horizons. But he ignores the express requirements of the text in Act 3, exhibiting the curious arrogance or sheer carelessness of many modern producers. The curse of Keikobad is quite clearly stated in the first minutes of the opera; referring to the Emperor, we are told ‘Er wird zu Stein’ – ‘he will be turned to stone’. In Act 3, this curse is carried out, and the stage directions tell us that the Emperor appears, turned to stone, only his terrified eyes betraying that he remains alive. What does Friedrich give us? The Emperor inside a large ball of rock, his eyes invisible. This sort of downright defiance of the wishes of the composer and librettist, with no positive gains, seems sheer ignorance and conceit.

If all this sounds a bit negative, I apologise, for this is a remarkable piece – one of operatic history’s most glorious failures – and this DVD gives a more than fair impression of its many heady beauties, as well as its undoubted shortcomings.

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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