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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Die Frau ohne Schatten
(The Woman without a Shadow) - opera in 3 acts (1919)
Der Kaiser (The Emperor) - Peter Seiffert (tenor); Die Kaiserin (The Empress) - Luana DeVol (soprano); Die Amme (The Nurse) - Marjana Lipovšek (mezzo); Der Geisterbote (The Spirit Messenger) - Jan-Hendrik Rootering (baritone); Barak, der Färber (Barak the dyer) - Alan Titus (baritone); Sein Weib (his wife) - Janis Martin (soprano); Die Stimme des Falken (The Falcon’s voice) - Caroline Maria Petrig (soprano); Die Erscheinung eines Jünglings (The Apparition of a Young Man) - Herbert Lippert (tenor)
Bavarian State Opera Chorus and Orchestra/ Wolfgang Sawallisch
Directed for the stage by Ennosuke Ichikawa
Technical realization by Takashi Kanai
rec. Aichi Prefectural Art Theatre, Nagoya, Japan, 8, 11 November 1992.

Now this is something of a rarity. The video market for Die Frau ohne Schatten has tended to be dominated by the excellent Götz Friedrich/Solti Salzburg Festival production, but those who know Sawallisch’s wonderfully fluent and intelligent EMI set from 1988 will be keen to experience this DVD version, filmed while the Bavarian Opera’s forces were in Japan by special invitation. Interestingly, both productions took place in the same year, 1992, and both conductors admit to a very special affinity with this opera. In Sawallisch’s case, the booklet tells us this was to be his last season in charge at Munich, and Die Frau was the obvious candidate for his farewell production after twenty one years in charge, as it is his favourite Strauss opera and the one had also conducted as his very first production with them, a neat ‘full circle’. The icing on the cake was the added fact that this was to be the first staging of the work in Japan.

In many ways this celebration of marital bliss suits what the director, Professor Ennosuke Ichikawa, chooses to do with it. The fairy-tale setting, replete with allegory and rather dense symbolism, lends itself quite well to the highly stylized world of kabuki theatre, and the sumptuous costumes and lavish yet basically simple designs give the scene changes an effortless flow, something which has foiled many opera houses mounting this opera. How do you tackle stage directions such as ‘the earth opens and the river pours in through the fractured walls’? Or ‘a flaming sword flies from the air into Barak’s grasp’? Or best of all ‘the fish fly through the air and land in the frying pan’? Well, I guess it’s rather like tackling Wagner’s Ring; the director has to decide what will be staged as ‘naturalistically’ as possible and what will be done with lighting effects or mere suggestion. Ichikawa doesn’t short-change us in this department, and the sword scene is brilliantly effective, as is the earthquake which ends Act 2. I suspect the notoriously picky librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929), who acknowledged a debt to influences from the Far East, would have approved.

It is only one director’s concept, and it’s worth saying that Friedrich’s more naturalistic Salzburg staging has many fine moments, some of which are even better than here, such as The Emperor’s falcon house scene in Act 2, but the many camera close-ups sometimes undermine the complex on-stage effects and we occasionally glimpse stagehands and bits of machinery. Here, everything flows as smoothly as the swathes of silk employed by the costume designer – but then what else would we expect in a new state-of-the-art Japanese theatre? To be sure, their censor had problems with aspects of the score, most notably the three deformed brothers, who the director makes sure we hardly see, as well as aspects of the portrayal of women and certain erotic undertones, but these do not become a problem in the context of the overall approach. It’s worth noting here that during the orchestral interludes, the Salzburg video cuts to the pit, whereas here the camera stays on the coloured backdrop. In fact, the only shot of Sawallisch conducting is during the prelude to Act 3.

If you know Sawallisch’s studio set, you’ll see from the above that the cast is completely different. This opera needs luxury casting and no-one here really disappoints, though the Solti is stronger in some areas. The standout performance, for me, is Lipovšek’s Nurse. She is still a great Straussian, as witnessed by her Clytemnestra in the recent Zurich Elektra, but here in 1992 she really is vocally at the peak of her powers; indeed, she also sings this part on the Solti DVD so was obviously coming to this Bavarian production fresh from the summer Salzburg Festival, excellent preparation if ever there was The voice soars and copes with every cruel demand placed on it, and even in heavy make-up and costume she conveys the Mephistophelean scheming of the character convincingly. The other women are also strong, with Luana DeVol ( a name new to me) touchingly vulnerable as The Empress and Janis Martin, who I admit I only really knew through her excellent Senta in Solti’s Flying Dutchman, excellent as the irascible, shrewish Wife, supposedly based in part on Strauss’s other half Pauline.

All the best tunes in this piece go to the noble character of Barak the Dyer, a sort of blood brother to Jokanaan, whose stoicism and near-saintliness is sometimes hard for a modern audience to swallow. All is forgiven with the music Strauss endows the character with and Alan Titus makes the most of it. Again, I have to confess to not really following his career much after his sensational debut in Bernstein’s Mass, but he’s every bit as good as Solti’s Robert Hale and vocally perhaps slightly stronger and firmer, though this is nit-picking. Particularly moving is his glorious Act 3 aria ‘Mir anvertraut, dass ich sie hege’ – for those who know the orchestral fantasy based on themes from the opera, it’s the big trombone tune towards the end. Titus really is up to the part and it was a pleasure re-acquainting myself with his artistry. Peter Sieffert’s Emperor is not quite as heroic as I would have liked, though he phrases intelligently. The voice is slightly quivery at first (nerves?) and not as ringing or firm as Thomas Moser for Solti, to say nothing of Domingo for Solti’s CD set or Kollo on the Sawallisch studio version. It’s not a serious problem, but he fails to rise to the occasion in his great ‘hunting song’ in Act 1 and seems to be saving himself for later, when the voice appears to gain in clarity and sheer tone. All other parts are strong, including Herbert Lippert’s Young Man, more repeat casting from Solti’s Salzburg run.

Sawallisch’s conducting oozes love of the score, yet he resolutely resists Solti’s tendency to put the big moments in neon lights and is determined to structure it symphonically. A good example is the above-mentioned Emperor’s song, where Solti’s whooping horns and trumpets blare out thrillingly but here seem a tad subdued until we hear the tune transformed magically to the strings in Act 2. Sawallisch also relishes the many chamber-like sonorities that temper the thicker orchestral passages, and he’s especially convincing in the important interludes, where themes are echoed and introduced in rich orchestral tapestries. His first rate orchestra really does him proud, and the whole thing is captured in warm and detailed sound.

The picture quality is also fine, though it’s only in 4.3 format rather than true widescreen. As ever with TDK, the booklet concentrates on the production, giving no background to the opera, cast biographies etc. It’s a shame, and the lovely photo of Sawallisch and Ichikawa on the back cover only made me yearn for an interview of some sort as an extra. Still, Strauss fans may well want this, even if Solti and his glorious VPO perhaps remain a safer all round recommendation. It’s a good record of what was obviously a special occasion for all concerned, and even if odd aspects of the production and casting could be questioned, the intelligent conception and sensitivity to character does full justice to an exceptional and challenging masterpiece.

Tony Haywood



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