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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919) [176:10]
Der Kaiser: Matti Kastu (tenor)
Die Kaiserin: Siv Wennberg (soprano)
Barak, Der Färber: Walter Berry (bass-baritone)
Die Färberin: Birgit Nilsson (sop)
Die Amme: Barbro Ericson (mezzo-soprano)
Der Geisterbote: Bo Lundberg (baritone)
Der Hüter der Schwelle des Tempels: Hillevi Blyloods (soprano)
Der Stimme des Jünglings: Tord Slättegård (tenor)
Falke: Birgit Nordin (soprano)
Stimme von oben: Ileana Peterson (alto)
Baraks Brüder: John-Erik Jacobsson (tenor); Carl-Johan Falkman (baritone); Rolf Cederlöf (bass)
Stimme der Wächter: Björn Asker (tenor); Håken Hagegård (baritone); Gunnar Lundberg (bass)
Sechs nicht geborene Kinder: Britt-Marie Aruhn (soprano); Gunilla Slättergård (soprano); Solveig Lindström (soprano); Gunilla Söderström (soprano); Ileana Peterson (alto)
Drei Dienerinnen: Britt-Marie Aruhn (soprano); Busk Margit Jonsson (soprano); Margot Rödin (mezzo-soprano)
Kungliga Hovkapellet Stockholm/Berislav Klobucar
rec. 13 December 1975, Stockholm
ADD; German-English libretto
Siv Wennberg: A Great Prima Donna - Volume 3
STERLING CDA1696/98-2 [3 CDs: 176:10]

This “FROSCH” is a difficult recording to assess, in that it is a complex admixture of enormous strengths and some inescapable disadvantages. It is also a permanent record of a live performance in a run which the Stockholm music critic called “the greatest in 200 years”, and indeed it must have been a privilege indeed to attend such a powerful representation of an opera which has always been considered among the most challenging to stage successfully. Strauss considered it to be his greatest work, but its fantastical setting, obscure plot and abstruse, prolix libretto baffled audiences at its premiere in 1919 and its place in the mainstream repertoire has only relatively recently been established, since when it is often cited by hardcore Straussians as their favourite of his operas, despite the claims of “Der Rosenkavalier”.

It is rare to encounter this work uncut, either live or recorded, and this performance is no exception; there are cuts in all three Acts amounting to around fifteen or twenty minutes. Most of them are made in the Nurse’s music: there are a few minor snips in Acts 1 and 2 but they are mostly in Act 3 where she pleads with the Empress, curses mankind and argues with the Spirit Messenger. The passage where Barak and his wife wander in search of each other is also truncated and this is this cut I most regret. Only the individual listener can decide whether these are substantially damaging; I have never much minded a few judicious excisions in this long opera and still consider Sinopoli’s composite live recording to be its greatest realisation despite them. Thankfully, the last two great scenes leading to the triumphant climax, are left uncut.

However, if you want the entire work unadulterated, your options are now Solti’s lavish recording for Decca, Sawalliisch on EMI and the recent issue conducted by Sebastian Weigle. All have their merits and critics: the casting is starrier and the singing consequently better on the first two but Weigle’s conducting in particular has been commended by knowledgeable commentators; I have not heard it.
But back to this recording: the provision of a full German-English libretto, shrink-wrapped with the box set, is rare and welcome, even though the cuts employed here are not indicated in it, which makes following the text slightly hard work when the singers appear suddenly to jump ahead. As this is presented as a joint tribute to Swedish diva Siv Wennberg and Birgit Nilsson, a long and quite interesting interview with the former and an evaluation of the latter, along with biographical notes, a synopsis, track and cast lists have all been included in the booklet which fits into the box (as opposed to the separate libretto).

The live sound is excellent for 1975, with few coughs and the orchestra well forward without drowning the voices. The string playing is occasionally lean compared with the more sumptuous sound of the VPO but there are some lovely individual contributions, such as the cello solos in the Transformation Scenes. Applause at the end of Acts is enthusiastic. Klobucar was a seasoned Strauss conductor and paces the work ideally.

For me, there are two main areas of contention in the performance: both centre on my personal response to the voices of Wennberg and the primo tenore, Matti Kastu. About Nilsson, there is no doubt: despite being 57 at the time, she is blazing form, dominating the stage and perhaps profiting from the fact that at this stage of her career the Dyer’s Wife suits the fit of her voice better than the Isolde she was to sing a year later In Vienna, which betrays wear and tear. She was still successfully singing the Wife for Böhm in 1977 but she is marginally better here, two years earlier. The laser top is secure, the middle steady and she is especially impressive in the last scene of Act 2, where she and Wennberg are electric, and in her lament opening Act 3, which is powerful, nuanced and deeply felt. She is both shrewish and touching, even if evidently rather mature for the role of the young wife.

Wennberg’s voice is a conundrum to me. Her soprano suggests a combination of Gundula Janowitz and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: it is often almost childlike and slender, with a minimum of vibrato which can sound fluttery and lends it a slightly “flat”, narrow quality. That permits her soprano to penetrate the thick orchestral textures but top notes sometimes thin out alarmingly. The last Act brings out her best and she is in some ways more convincing as the ethereal Empress than more generously vocally endowed exponents of the role such as Rysanek. As with the other two singers with whom I compared her, some swoon over her sound, others find it unsettling. Her commitment is not in doubt and she certainly rises to the challenges of this extraordinarily demanding role. However, her German diction is at times decidedly indistinct and approximate; she gabbles her spoken dialogue in Act 3 which is, in any case, heavily cut to just a few lines. It is also regrettable that during the spoken “Ich will nicht” scene, in an otherwise virtually unflawed live recording, there is audible talking on the background, presumably from stage hands, all of which rather lowers the dramatic tension usually generated at that point in performance.

My other reservation arises from Matti Kastu’s voice. I have previously encountered him only in what I frankly consider to be his inadequate contribution to Dorati’s “Die Ăgyptische Helena” and find him to be only marginally more impressive here. He simply has little of the heroic quality we hear best in Ben Heppner’s and Hans Hopf’s Emperors and which James King, Placido Domingo and René Kollo all bring to that role; his tenor is pinched and uningratiating, like Windgassen on a very bad night. He is not a disaster but certainly represents the weakest point in the cast, especially in the exalted company of Walter Berry, the Barak of his generation, and Barbro Ericson, a Nurse of great strength and presence. She is intermittently a bit hooty and glottal, but she dominates what remains an Everest among mezzo roles, despite the cuts. Berry has both the warm lyricism and the touch of nobility in his tone that Barak requires; he and Nilsson make a wonderful team. The cast is otherwise excellent; I note the presence of a young Håken Hagegård as a Watchman.

The jubilant final quartet does not reach the exalted heights of Sinopoli’s account, mainly because neither the Emperor nor the Empress has quite the power to match the Barak and Wife but it still makes it mark as one of the most stirring conclusions in all opera. As a souvenir of a great occasion, this live recording certainly satisfies and despite its deficiencies and cuts, is still worthy of consideration as a collector’s choice.

Ralph Moore



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