Thursday, August 23, 2012

Richard Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten

           As conductor Christian Thielemann notes in the worthwhile bonus interview that accompanies this release, Die Frau ohne Schatten inspires addicts. Fans collect casts, productions and recordings, and the more Frau lore one knows, the better. Still, this longtime Frau addict finished watching this production unsure of what it meant to say about the Empress's emotional trajectory, which seems to me the point of the piece. Even Thielemann and the director, Christof Loy, say contradictory things about the resonances of their production's final scene.
          Loy's fascinating yet frustrating production may leave first-time viewers of the already abstruse plot very confused. The director and his design team play with images of the work's first studio recording, in 1955, which was made under Karl Bohm, reputedly for no pay and in unheated conditions. The cast included Leonie Rysanek, Christel Goltz, Elisabeth Hangen, Hans Hopf and Paul Schoffler - all inspired. The recording was made in the Musikvereinssaal, not the Sofiensale, as depicted here, but Loy is claiming to be inspired by, not locked into, mere facts.
          A good thing, since the Empress character is meant to be a newcomer from a rich family (Rysanek was neither), the Emperor working in Europe for the first time (assuredly not Hopf). The marriage of the singers portraying Barak and his wife is nearing its breaking point – a conceit that clearly riffs on the doomed marriage of real-life stars Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry, who were paired in a later Viennese production and universally acclaimed in their parts there and elsewhere. (The highly capable Wolfgang Koch sports eyeglasses similar to Berry's and follows Berry's dynamic interpretation rather closely, evoking his predecessor's well-molded top voice more accurately than the sheer tonal mass he generated.) Much is meant to be made of the generational difference between Hongen (who sang the Nurse) and the younger Rysanek - twenty years, but a key twenty years in Viennese and world history.
          Anne Schwanewilms's wary, delicate impersonation of the Empress offers flutelike, instrumental vocalism, mainly beautiful. With her "Berre Davis eyes," soprano Evelyn Herlitzius makes a compelling, vibrant Dyer's Wife; her voice - no more a thing of great beauty than was Goltz's - is pliant, expressive and relatively comfortable at the demanding climaxes. The Blu-ray format is grossly unflattering to both of these (extremely attractive) women. Stephen Gould copes manfully with the Kaiser's grueling tasks, though high notes tend to be "fixed" and vibrato-less and he's no match in tonal
appeal for James King or Hopf. Michaela Schuster, an exuberantly detailed Nurse, enters 200 percent into her character, singing with abandon if occasional raw patches at range extremes.
          Thielemann's work is, simply put, superb. He rules the Vienna Philharmonic - which, as he says, is an optimal ensemble to perform this score. The texture and playing are quite staggering, and the vital solo cello and violin passages prove extraordinary. As in the Met's 2001 production (what a shame it was not documented, with Deborah Voigt in zenith form), Thielemann opens all of the extensive cuts Bohm made in the score, intensifying the demands made on the singers (and, frankly, on their auditors). The supporting cast has no weaknesses; particular honor goes to the Spirit Messenger of Thomas Johannes Mayer and the lovely-sounding Guardian of Christina Landshammer.

Review by David Shengold
Opera News, September 2012

Richard Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten
Schwanewilms, Herlitzius, Schuster; S. Gould, W. Koch, Mayer; Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Thielemann.
Production: Loy. Opus Arte OA BD 7104 D
(Blu-ray) or OA 1072 D (2 DVDs)
220 mins. (opera), 26 mins. (bonus), subtitled

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just took delivery of the bluray. Still skeptical of the Loy vision; but the performances by all concerned are quite brilliant.

I am a FrOSch addict. I had no choice whatsoever.

Jim, somewhere in Central Arkansas