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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Die Frau ohne Schatten
The Emperor – Stephen Gould (tenor)
The Empress – Camilla Nylund (soprano)
Barak – Wolfgang Koch (bar)
Barak’s Wife – Nina Stemme (soprano)
The Nurse – Evelyn Herlitzius (soprano)
Spirit Messenger – Sebastian Holecek (bar)
Orchestra and Chorus of Wiener Staatsoper/Christian Thielemann
rec. live, 25 May 2019, Wiener Staatsoper
ORFEO C991203 [3 CDs: 209:12]

For all its importance to the global musical scene, the opera house on Vienna’s Ringstrasse has hosted very few significant premieres since it was opened in 1869. The one, clear exception to that rule is Strauss’s Die Frau Ohne Schatten. The composer completed it during the Great War, but held off its premiere until peace had broken out, and it was unveiled amid great celebration (and a considerable degree of bafflement which has never quite dissipated) in the Vienna house in 1919.

2019 was, therefore, its centenary year, and the Staatsoper pulled out all the stops to give it its centenary production, here captured on disc by Orfeo. I watched the production on the Staatsoper’s streaming service, one of the highlights of my lockdown, and it’s the same performance as this one. It’s definitely worth seeing if you love the opera: broadly traditional in approach and with some fantastic musical values, it would become an automatic first choice for the opera on DVD were it ever to be released.

But for now let’s celebrate this CD recording because it’s really, really good; for my money the finest live Frau we have on CD, and by some margin the best we’ve had since Solti’s studio recording (also from Vienna: they own this opera!). Let’s start with the orchestra, who sound sensational. These Viennese musicians must, surely, have played the opera more than any other orchestra in the world, and they know intimately its every phrase. The strings, for one thing, are an absolute treat, particular in the tender, gentle music, such as Barak’s affectionate theme that represents his love for his wife in Act 1, or the benediction that settles on the ends of Acts 1 and 3. However, they can tear hair-raisingly through the tempest of the end of Act 2, or evoke the threat of the temple scene with dark intensity. The winds and brass are every bit as strong, driving the energy of the Erdenflug with maniacal urgency, and conjuring up an overpowering wave of sound for the unveiling of the Emperor’s statue. The transitions between scenes, each one a miniature tone poem, sound breathtaking in their breadth and evocative power – listen as an example to the first transition of Act 2 as the Emperor approaches the Falconer’s Hut, with its keening cello solo and ever-shifting textures – and they confirm that you could be in no safer orchestral hands when it comes to this opera.

Similarly, I can’t imagine there are any living conductors who know Die Frau as well as Christian Thielemann. He has been living with it for years, and has, in fact, already recorded it in Christof Loy’s (very fussy) 2011 Salzburg production on DVD from Opus Arte. He knows and loves its every contour, and shapes the opera’s vast ebb and flow with great certainty. He controls the climaxes expertly, knowing when to hold back so that the highlights really crackle, and he’s a master of light and shade. Listen, for example, to the delicate touch with which he controls the quicksilver winds during the trial scene of Act 3: it’s hard to believe it’s the same conductor who had shaped the end of Act 2 into a climax of such pile-driving power. He’s brilliant, and it also helps that he conducts the score complete, so far as I could see, even down to every word of the spoken melodrama in Act 3.

The cast of singers is as fine as you could imagine for the opera today. Stephen Gould and Camilla Nylund are marvellous as the royal couple. Gould’s amazingly strong Heldentenor is on top of every aspect of the Emperor’s (admittedly one-dimensional) character. Every note is there with complete security, and the slightly dusky colour of his voice give him a particular colour that I found very attractive. Perhaps Nylund is a tiny bit shrill during the awakening scene, but elsewhere she brings a touch of humanity to the character of the Empress, and there is beauty aplenty amid the role’s many rigours.

Wolfgang Koch is a bluff, likeable presence as Barak, giving a rounded warmth to the role that I’d readily associate with Jose van Dam in Solti’s studio recording. That makes him just right for the part, and his great “Mir anvertraut” becomes the lyrical highlight of Act 3. Nina Stemme is luxury casting in more ways than one. She sings the thankless part of the Dyer’s wife in a way that always gives the impression of strength, never of struggling. There is richness and even refulgence to her voice, but she always sounds like she has more in store and could let rip with even more beauty of tone if she wanted to. In a role as impossible to sing as this, that’s high praise.

Evelyn Herlitzius has a tendency to gulp her notes, but she hits every one straight on, and the jagged edge to her voice suits the malign Nurse very well. The smaller parts are all well cast, too, with a majestic Spirit Messenger, a characterful trio of brothers, and gleaming cameos from the Guardian of the Threshold and the Apparition of the Young Man.

This sits almost at the top of recommendable CDs of Die Frau, an opera that has been slow to catch on, and which still sits slightly on the fringes of the mainstream, but which we now acknowledge as a celebratory, occasional piece. That’s helped by Orfeo’s excellent recorded sound, which gets the soundscape just right and, if anything, enriches it compared to what you could expect from being present in the theatre. The voices are captured clearly with no detriment to the orchestra, and if you miss the odd detail in the tempestuous climaxes then that’s a natural consequence of the live recording process. If forced to make a criticism then I’d say that the offstage choruses are a little too close, and that reduces slightly the impact of the score’s most spine-tingling moment, the song of the Night Watchmen that ends Act 1. However, that’s a small grumble really, and it’s balanced by the fact that, miraculously, they manage to capture all of the Baraks’ offstage interjections during Act 3.

If the sound quality really does matter more to you then you’ll still want to pick Solti’s Decca studio recording, which is a worthy holder of the gold medal, and the finest studio recording whichever way you look at it, benefitting from a finer cast than Sawallisch, and a fuller text than Böhm’s 1955 recording. Böhm’s later live recording has an unparalleled quartet of soloists (James King, Leonie Rysanek, Walter Berry and Birgit Nilsson), and Sinopoli’s live Dresden recording has great sound, but is let down by savage cuts to the score.

If you want a recording of the opera as a celebratory live event then you can invest in this one with confidence. It’s the finest iteration of the opera that you could imagine today and, with its searing demands and huge costs, it might be another hundred years before we get another recording of it, so enjoy this one for the gem that it is. The booklet essays are very good, too: there is no libretto, but that’s reflected in the cost, a bargain at lower mid-price.

Simon Thompson

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