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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Die Frau Ohne Schatten (1919)
Die Kaiserin - Luana DeVol (soprano)
Der Kaiser - Peter Seiffert (tenor)
Die Amme - Marjana Lipovsek (mezzo)
Barak - Alan Titus (baritone)
Sein Weib - Janis Martin (soprano)
Der Geisterbote - Jan-Hendrik Rootering (baritone)
Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper
Bayerisches Staatsorchester/Wolfgang Sawallisch
Ennosuke Ichikawa, stage director
Filmed live at the Aichi Prefectural Art Theater, Nagoya, Japan, 1992
Region Code: 0 (Worldwide); Sound formats: DD5.1 • DTS 5.1; LPCM Stereo; Sacem; Picture Format: NTSC (4.3)
TDK DVD DVWW-OPFROS [183:00]

 


I couldn’t begin to explain why I love Strauss’s Die Frau Ohne Schatten the most of all his operas. Its basic premise “strive and suffer” - to have babies - is not my cuppa, but when the cherubim sing “so that the dead may live again” I find myself invariably reaching for the tissue box, against my natural inclinations. I once attended a performance in San Francisco with a friend who, as we exited the War Memorial Opera House at the end, commented laconically, “It’s like an operatic Thirty-something”. Even staunch Wagnerians find this opera daunting, usually commenting that it is so very long and confusing. Actually Die Frau Ohne Schatten is nowhere near as long as many of Wagner’s masterpieces and is no more obtuse than, say, Lohengrin or Parsifal. And this opera is right out of Strauss’s top-drawer and is so beautiful, who cares how long it is. 

Wolfgang Sawallisch conducts this score, indeed all the Strauss operas, like no one else ... con amore. He chose this opera as his final job at the end of his marvellous musical directorship at the Bavarian State Opera and subsequently took it on tour to Japan in 1992. The choice of Ennosuke Ichikawa was inspired from on-high. The timeless nature of the piece lends itself effortlessly to Ichikawa’s concept. In a nutshell, he places the realm of Keikobad in a fantastical Japanese setting replete with gorgeous traditional costumes, reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa at his most resplendent with much use of beautiful silks to simulate things like the golden waters of life in Act 3 and the earthquake and flood in Act 2. These are brilliant solutions for what are often insurmountable obstacles to any production. The lighting effects of Sumio Yoshii border on cinematic F/X. The flying fish in Act 1 and Barak’s sword in Act 2 are utterly magical and it is quite unclear to me how these effects were managed. Ichikawa chose a basically black stage which successfully masks the technical trickery that is going on, as well as preventing the Empress from casting a shadow on the backdrop, a gaffe that is often apparent in other productions I’ve seen. The use of Noh Theatre techniques is not over-done and quite beguiling when they are employed. The golden waters of life in Act 3 are manipulated by two “stage hands” who become quite invisible though they are, of course, right there before our eyes. This film should be seen if for no other reason than as an example of how a lot of imagination and simplicity can create splendid beauty and even believability. This opera is one of the most over-the-top concepts ever to emerge from a composer and his librettist and it benefits greatly from Ichikawa’s mythical yet traditional Japanese approach. 

The Kaiser and Kaiserin move about in a dignified and elegant manner, redolent of Noh Theatre again. Luana DeVol, a tall woman, is surprisingly effective in her stage deportment. She has a natural command of theatrical nuance and stage-craft that belies her height and size, though she is not fat she is clearly not of the traditional diminutive Geisha stature. Heavily made up she resembles a porcelain doll, her unusual facial features fitting uncannily into and enhancing a very complete personification of an allusive creature. And she manages to convey an amazing array of facial responses even when not singing. She is fully inside the character in this concept and she sings splendidly. She easily pops out a nice high D in her opening gambit and sings throughout the evening with beautiful tone-color, steady and wide-ranging in its dynamics. This is a fiendishly difficult role and DeVol betrays no sense of strain at any moment. As this was filmed in 1992 the wobble that has begun to enter her voice now was nowhere in evidence then. Hers is one of the great Empresses in my experience. Why was she ignored by recording companies and American opera houses in her prime? 

Peter Seiffert is unrecognizable in his get-up. I realized after a few minutes that I was looking for his moustache which he was apparently persuaded to remove for this production. His Kaiser resembles the nightmare samurai in Terry Gilliam’s classic film ‘Brazil’, and moves like a Sumo wrestler. Yet, he sings like an angel with no stress or strain in evidence in this very high-lying role. He may be the best Emperor yet on film or recording. Marjana Lipovsek’s Nurse steals the show, that is until Luana DeVol sings at which point this fascinating Empress walks off with the limelight with her demure body language and beguiling facial expressions and lovely voice. Lipovsek sings with rock-solid tone throughout a monstrously wide-ranging part, decorated with her trademark portamenti when necessary for dramatic effect. She is the incarnation of an evil deus ex machina in the first two acts and then she meets her match in Keikobad, whom we never see, in Act 3. 

The mortals are quite well done by Alan Titus (Barak) and Janis Martin (his wife). This production happened several years before Titus started his stint as Wotan at Bayreuth and his voice was steady, powerful and beautiful. He only lacks the last ounce of pathos that Walter Berry for Karajan [DG 467 678] and Paul Schöffler for Böhm [Decca, currently out of print] brought to this wonderful role. Janis Martin has a few slightly rough edges at the top of her voice but she was nearing the end of her fine career and I was pleasantly surprised at how very well she sings the challenging part of the Dyer’s Wife. She looks marvellous too, if a tad round, but then Titus is no Popeye and together they look like an appropriately well-suited married couple. I slightly prefer Robert Hale and Eva Marton [Solti, Decca DVD 440-071] filmed at the Salzburg Festival, also in 1992, but there really is very little to choose between. I much prefer Ichikawa’s production in Nagoya to that of Götz Friedrich’s in Salzburg. And good as Solti is in this opera, one of his avowed favorites, he doesn’t touch the heart and soul quite like Sawallisch does. And Sawallisch has the finer Emperor and Empress I think, though Cheryl Studer is a famous Empress, for Solti I find her physically unconvincing and vocally less resplendent than Luana DeVol. Seiffert is far preferable to Thomas Moser (Solti), though the latter sings well-enough he looks like a beery truck-driver in fancy dress. Lipovsek once again appears as the Nurse in Salzburg but is much more effective in the Japanese production. 

Tomio Mohri’s costuming for Ichikawa’s Nagoya film is fabulous. Lipovsek’s bat-covered outfit adds a very sinister and frightening aspect to her already imposing malevolence, and I especially liked her black fingernail polish. The smaller roles are well-done, Anne Salvan’s Guardian of the Threshold being especially notable. And Caroline Maria Petrig should have gotten double-pay for her aerobic-like falcon. She not only had to sing that tricky role she also had to wave her beautifully red-feathered “wings” about constantly and generally behave like a prima ballerina. The orchestra acquits itself exceptionally well considering they must have been suffering the last vestiges of jet-lag which is only betrayed once by a tiny clam from a horn player in Act 3. The audience is utterly silent, except where their roaring and cheering grow in strength with each subsequent act.

The single disappointment to this splendidly filmed and recorded production is that there is no documentary featuring Ichikawa and Sawallisch. That would have been fascinating, though it probably would have taken a third disc to fit one in. This Die Frau Ohne Schatten is a must-have for all who, like me, have an unreasoned Schwärmerei for the work. If you only want one film of this opera I would recommend this one over the Solti/Friedrich production from Salzburg. Of all the many recordings and films I have of this opera this one from Japan will be the one I turn to most often for my ‘Frosch’ fix. 

This film is a fitting monument to Wolfgang Sawallisch’s golden tenure in Munich and makes one regret his comparative neglect by the recording companies. Surely there will appear more retrospective off-air performances of Sawallisch’s work in Munich and elsewhere. I say retrospective because, though he still lives, Sawallisch is quite elderly, one of the ancien régime of conductors, and suffers from a bad heart and it is unlikely he will mount the podium again. Vielen Dank, Maestro. 

Jeffrey Sarver

see also Review by Tony Haywood 

 


 


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