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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
see also Review
by Tony Haywood