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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919) [176.10]
Birgit Nilsson (soprano) – Dyer’s wife: Siv Wennberg (soprano) – Empress: Matti Kastu (tenor) – Emperor: Walter Berry (baritone) – Barak: Barbro Ericson (mezzo-soprano) – Nurse: Bo Lundberg (bass) – Spirit Messenger: Hillevi Blyloods (soprano) – Guardian of the Fountain): Tord Slättergård (tenor) – Young man: Birgit Nordin (soprano) – Falcon: Ileana Peterson (contralto) – Voice from above, Unborn child): John-Erik Jacobsson (tenor), Carl-Johan Falkman (baritone) and Rolf Cederlöf (bass) – Barak’s brothers: Björn Asker, Gunnar Lundberg and Håkan Hagegård (baritones) – Watchmen: Britt-Marie Aruhn (soprano) – Unborn child, Servant: Gunilla Slättergärd, Solweig Lindström and Gunilla Söderström (sopranos) – Unborn children: Busk Margit Jonsson and Margot Rödin (mezzo-sopranos) – Servants: Royal Stockholm Hovkapellet/Berislav Klobukar
rec. live, Stockholm Opera, 13 December 1975
STERLING CDA-1696/1698-2 [3 CDs: 176:10]

I must admit to a certain sinking feeling when I come across a release of a live opera performance which advertises itself (as this issue does) as “legendary”. All too often this means that a rendering which one would be delighted to encounter in the opera house will be marred by errors both major and minor which would pass muster in the enthusiasm of the theatre, but which would certainly become more and more annoying with repetition on a recording. That is particularly true in the case of any long and complex score; and Die Frau ohne Schatten is both very long and very complex. All the more reason for rejoicing therefore to be able to report that this recording, taken from one single performance without any opportunity for later patching, is totally devoid of any slips which might get in the way of the listener’s enjoyment; and the recording itself avoids the unnatural spotlighting of the voices which sometimes can spoil radio broadcasts of the period in question. Not all the balances are ideal, as I will report in due course, but the clarity of the sound itself is quite exceptional.

The establishment of Die Frau ohne Schatten as one of Richard Strauss’s greatest operas, which would surely be nowadays a standard repertory piece were it not for the difficulties of casting and staging it, was in great measure due to the efforts of Karl Böhm during the 1950s and 1960s. He conducted the first nearly complete set for Decca in Vienna in 1955, and the engineers actually recorded the score in stereo (although the LPs originally appeared in mono only and the stereo only emerged at the time of the mid-price reissue in 1968). He also later assembled a ‘dream cast’ for the opera featuring Leonie Rysanek, Christa Ludwig, James King and Walter Berry, who made an unexpected success of the work in the opening season of the new Metropolitan Opera in New York and also appeared in performances in Paris, Vienna and elsewhere. Rysanek had already appeared in the earlier Vienna recording (where she was in the company of Christel Goltz and Hans Hopf, neither of whom seemed comfortable in their roles and displayed distressing insecurities of pitch) and Karajan also presented 1964 performances of the opera in Vienna featuring Ludwig and Berry (which have subsequently surfaced on CD in 2000 in decidedly boxy recording quality). But already Böhm had begun the trend towards making cuts in the score, none of which appear to have been approved by Strauss, and Karajan compounded the offence by making swingeing alterations to Hofmannsthal’s carefully designed contrasts of scene in the Second Act and taking an axe to sections of the Third; he even horrendously abridged the Emperor’s ‘falcon house’ scene in Act Two. Böhm too in his later performances including a live 1977 DG recording made further cuts (not as horrifyingly insensitive as Karajan’s), and for the opening of the Munich National Theatre in 1963, also the subject of a commercial live recording, Joseph Keilberth made even more severe excisions, mainly abridging the role of the Nurse (understandable given Martha Mödl’s distressingly imprecise command of the notes) but also chopping left, right and centre throughout. Performances elsewhere also continued to make cuts to bring the score within “manageable proportions” and it was not until Wolfgang Sawallisch in 1987 and Sir Georg Solti four years later made their studio recordings that we were able to hear the score complete as Strauss wrote it, including on disc for the first time the extended scene between the Nurse and the Spirit Messenger in Act Three – a great and thrilling piece of music.

In this recorded performance Berislav Klobucar gives us the First Act absolutely complete, and only makes a couple of minor excisions in Act Two; but during Act Three that same scene featuring the Nurse is absolutely butchered (it is reduced in length by more than a half, including cuts of passages that Böhm included in his 1955 Vienna set) and during the final scene he also truncates the duet between the Emperor and the Empress [CD3, track 9], an omission which considerably reduces the impact of what is after all the only passage in the opera where these two leading characters actually sing together. Nonetheless his cuts are less painful than those made by Keilberth and Karajan, and his adoption of the abridged version of the Empress’s spoken central scene (so vital to the resolution of the plot) is exactly the same as that adopted in all except the absolutely complete recordings by Sawallisch and Solti [CD3, track 8].

Siv Wennberg, billed on the cover of this set as the star of the show – “Siv Wennberg, a Great Primadonna with Birgit Nilsson” – is actually at her weakest in this scene; the recorded balance sets her spoken voice very far back against the orchestra, and she has almost to shout her crucial final words “Ich will nicht!” in a desperate attempt to make the line audible. But otherwise she deserves her star billing, right from the moment of her first entrance [CD1, track 3], where she surmounts without apparent effort, Strauss’s demand for a lightning high D in her opening phrase – a demand which Strauss renders even more cruel by echoing the phrase in the oboe as if to expose any failing in his soprano. Wennberg quotes Birgit Nilsson (in an interview contained in the booklet) as hailing her performance of the Empress, saying “it was Rysanek’s role, but tonight it is ‘demise of the crown’ because I think Siv Wennberg is outstanding.” She was right, although I do recall from the same period live performances in the opera house by Anne Evans and Heather Harper which were pretty special too. Wennberg’s pitching of the difficult role is spot-on throughout, including the horrendously tricky passages spanning C in three octaves in Act Three [CD3, track 4], and the leap of nearly two octaves at the end of her scene confronting her father shortly after that [track 7].

Wennberg was surprisingly singing the role here for the first time, as indeed was Birgit Nilsson as the Dyer’s Wife (although her recording of the part for Böhm has long been commercially available on CD). This was the last major role she undertook – she was nearly sixty at the time – and her long experience in Wagner and Strauss is of course evident even when the voice is beginning to show some signs of wear. She plummets convincingly into the realms of the bass clef in the scene following the temptation scene in Act One [CD1, 12], and her passages of spoken dialogue come across more forcefully than Wennberg’s. She is also steadier in tone than any of her rivals on the studio sets. The only singer in this performance who had previously sung his role was Walter Berry as her husband Barak – he was a late replacement for Jerker Arvidson who had pulled out of rehearsals at a late stage – and although he was firmer of voice when he sang the role for Karajan ten years earlier he remains a sympathetic character with warmth, engagement and projection which surpass Paul Schoeffler (for Böhm on Decca) or even Fischer-Dieskau (for Keilberth). Mind you, nobody in my experience has surpassed Norman Bailey in the live Welsh National Opera performances from 1981 given in English (there was a BBC broadcast which really deserves to be commercially released).

Matti Kastu was also featured in those Welsh performances, but in this Swedish staging he seems to be in firmer voice even though his tone is never beautiful. But he has the right sort of heroic projection and his tuning is impeccable in a manner that Hans Hopf (for Böhm in 1955) is not; indeed on disc he is only surpassed by Jess Thomas for Keilberth (with the same objectionable cut in the final scene) or, best of all, Plácido Domingo on Solti’s 1991 complete set who has the lyrical warmth that Kastu lacks while maintaining the heroic strength required in places. Barbro Ericson is fine and incisive as the villainous Nurse, scything through the music in a manner which makes the listener regret the manner in which her final scene is butchered. I am not however convinced by her cackle as the curtain falls on Act Two [CD2, track 12], or her moans as she leaves the stage in Act Three, but these presumably were wished upon her by the stage producer. The audience, I should note, is commendably quiet throughout (although they applaud too soon at the end of Act Two) and the only extraneous noises come from some undesirably clumsy scene shifting and stage movement at various points.

The other parts in this performance are less well taken, although some of the singers are clearly disadvantaged by their placement at a considerable distance from the microphones. Birgit Nordin as the Falcon is particularly shabbily treated by her being banished offstage throughout, and her intervention in the Empress’s dream sequence (which should be thrilling and chilling) is rendered practically inaudible [CD2, track 9]. Hillevi Blyloods as the Guardian of the Fountain is similarly too far distanced, although her voice is decidedly better focused than Eva Lind for Solti (one of the few failures in the otherwise exceptional casting on his Decca studio set). Tord Slättergård sounds too small-voiced for the role of the Young Man (Fritz Wunderlich takes the part for Karajan!) and Bo Lundborg as the Spirit Messenger cannot begin to match Hans Hotter (for Keilberth) or Bryn Terfel (for Solti on his DVD version from Salzburg). By the way, I cannot understand the custom of casting this role (with its call for really deep bass tones on the crucial line “Er wird zu Stein”) with baritone or bass-baritone voices; Strauss specifies “bass” without qualification, and Böhm in 1955 employed the Fafner-toned Kurt Böhme. The three Watchman at the end of Act One [CD1, track 15] could also be further forward in the balance – it is hard to credit that one of three unison singers here is as strong-voiced an artist as Håkan Hagegård.

All of the voices are heard within the precisely controlled rendition of the orchestral score given by Klobucar, where the internal proportions are exceptionally realised in a manner that in places even puts the studio recordings at some disadvantage (he manages, for example, to get the horn delivery of the main theme after the ‘falcon house’ scene properly forward in a manner that eludes Solti). The downside of this precision comes with some avoidance of emotion – his rendition of the glorious orchestral passage following Barak’s “Freude im Herzen” is just too fast to convey the full beauty of the string writing [CD1, track 8], and the final bars could be slower to make their full effect. But he can match Solti for excitement in the stormy interludes of Act Three, and there is plenty of red-blooded passion elsewhere. The chorus seem properly enthused, too, and their offstage interjections come over better than some of the solo voices.

It appears that there was a television broadcast of the production (with the same cast) three years after the date of this recording, and it is a great pity if – as reported in the booklet – the producer Nicholas Lehnhoff has subsequently placed a ban on its commercial issue. The photographs in the booklet give a good impression of the staging, much more atmospheric than Götz Friedrich’s workaday sets for Solti’s DVD version from Salzburg. There are two booklets, one entirely in English containing the interview with Siv Wennberg, artist biographies and a synopsis, and the other comprising the complete libretto in German and English, peculiarly including all the passages which are actually cut in the performance. They could have benefited from more comprehensive proof-reading, and (in the case of the libretto) more careful alignment of the text and translation where some – but not all – of the omitted passages remain untranslated. This booklet with the libretto is too substantial to be included in the CD box, and comes as a separate item – those purchasing the set may need to make sure that it is supplied.

Those wishing to include Die Frau ohne Schatten in their collections – and all Straussians will need at least one performance of the absolutely complete score – will presumably gravitate towards Solti, whose generally admirable Decca set is largely cast from strength and superbly recorded, rather than Sawallisch with his sometimes less satisfactory cast. But this live performance contains some performances – in particular Wennberg, Nilsson, Berry and Ericson – which are fully the equal of those to be found on the Solti set; and the recording, especially considering its origins from a single performance, is amazingly good. Sterling should be thanked for rescuing it from obscurity and making it readily available.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Ralph Moore



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