Die Frau Ohne Schatten

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Composer: Richard Strauss

Libretto: Hugo von Hofmannsthal

First Produced: Vienna, 1919

Present Company: Salzburg Festival 2011

Director: Christof Loy

Sets: Johannes Leiacker

Costumes: Ursula Renzenbrink

Lighting: Stefan Bolliger

Video Director: Karina Fibich

Orchestra: Vienna Philharmonic

Conductor: Christian Thielemann



The Empress: Anne Schwanewilms

The Emperor: Stephen Gould

The Nurse: Michaela Schuster

Barak’s Wife: Evelyn Herlitzius

Barak, the Dyer: Wolfgang Koch



Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-50

Opera: 40.13 GB

Bit Rate: Moderate (19-24 Mbps)

German DTS-HD MA 5.1

German LPCM 2.0 stereo

Region: All

Opera runtime: 218 minutes

Opus Arte 2012



Conception & Staging: C+

Costumes: B+

Casting: A-

Singing: A-

Orchestra: A

Music Direction: A

Video Direction: A

Image: A-

Audio: A-

Extras Features: A

Recommendation: B



Christof Loy’s staging of the Hofmannsthal libretto does not, as we expect, wander about in mystical, magical settings (three of the main characters are half-spirit), but instead it is set squarely in the 1950s on a sound stage where the first stereo recording of Strauss’s opera is taking place.  The actors play the singers, engineers and stage hands present at that recording session – all to the music and words that Strauss and Hofmannsthal wrote.  For over three and a half hours, there is only the one set: a raised stage, at the rear are bleachers for the chorus and for the singers to take short breaks, and behind them a window where the sound engineers keep a watchful eye on their meters and tape.  To either side of the stage there are shadowed wings where the singers gather to enter and exit and mingle with one another and the extras.  That’s it.  One set for nearly four hours.  And it bloody well works in its own right – that is, as long as you are not married to the original intent of the composer and librettist.



Yet the singers are all people who know each other, some of them intimately, and of course the action in the opera they are singing reflects on their own dramas and as they do so, they shed light on Hofmannsthal’s story.  More, perhaps than any other opera on video, the video director’s choices of framing and point of view, contribute to the drama, not merely edit it.  I imagine Loy’s staging works better for those unacquainted with the opera, but even so there seems to me to be hardly as enough substance to hang an opera as complex as Die Frau ohne Schatten nor does the action on stage seem to express fully the expectations of the music, irrespective of story or libretto.  I’m not entirely convinced that there is enough here to support the idea of a play within a play where there is so little movement for extended period of time, either at their respective music stands or simply standing or sitting, reflecting, emoting or catching one’s breath, and so much that happens off-stage that we hear but do not see.  One thing we can say with some certainty: Loy’s staging, or the lack ot it, allows us to focus on Strauss’ music and the singing as no magical set could do.



The make or break point may be Loy’s willingness to allow magic to infiltrate the stage.  His singers certainly get into their parts every bit as much as they would if they were acting on stage.  Perhaps more.  Not content with this, little bits of an alternate plane seep in, as in the second act when children dressed as the adults they stand in for take their places on the stage.


While The Empress may be the central character and sung by the main attraction, Anne Schwanewilms, she is not who grabs our attention – at least not for the first act where difficulties in her upper register are more apparent.  Rather, in much the same way as Titania and Oberon put things into motion in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is the relationship of the dyer’s wife (an affecting Evelyn Herlitzius) and her husband, with whose conflicts we most identify. And like Puck, it is the Empress’ Nurse - played with delicious sinister intensity by Michaela Schuster, who affects the spell that is expected to make or break the Empress’ desires.  And, not only hers. . . Wolfgang Koch makes for a solid, sympathetic Dyer, if a little light for some reason.  At least he is on pitch, which is more than we can say for Stephen Gould’s Emperor.  Fortunately, Gould has about the right sound - a bright heldentenor - and he means well, but he seems to lack sufficient support just now.



Die Frau Ohne Schatten is not one of Richard Strauss’ most inviting operas,  yet I always liked the music long before I knew what it was about, and have always felt it was brilliant. The opera lacks the swooning melodiousness of Der Rosenkavalier or Ariadne auf Naxos, which it followed directly, the eroticism of Salome, or the clarity of Capriccio, yet the score is one of Strauss’ most imaginative and colorful, quite possibly his best.  For many, it is too intellectual (a charge one could make of Capriccio), its metaphor and symbology, too remote. And it is easy to see why:


The story follows two strands, for the first two acts anyhow: The first is the prediction, more like a commandment, that if The Empress is unable to acquire a shadow by the twelfth month (which is any minute now) she will be returned to the kingdom from whence she came and the Emperor will be turned to stone.  The other is the plight of two women, the Empress (who is not really a woman but a half-spirit creature that has assumed human form after she was captured in the form of a gazelle by the Emperor, whom she then married) and the dyer’s wife, both of whom, being childless, feel incomplete.  With an eye on the ticking clock, The Empress and her Nurse pitchman and magician, descend to the confused world of humanity to propose a trade: they would grant beauty on Barak’s wife in exchange for her shadow, which The Empress understands is necessary for her to produce offspring.  Barak’s wife’s shadow certainly hasn’t done her much good, she being childless herself, if somewhat intentionally.



But this whole business of childlessness hides what may be a more fundamental prospect: Loyalty.  For it is Loyalty, Fidelity that identifies us and determines our fate in a way.  Even the struggle against it, as most of us engage, defines us.  It did Odysseus.  And so the story works its way back to the idea of Family in a way that would make the Religious Right downright proud - if they understood it.

Video & Audio

Video quality is excellent, benefiting from the luxury of a single set with only subtly changing lighting. Shadows can be a little murky, but we are never meant to see what goes on there keenly.  Facial textures are good enough to make out the nature of makeup on close-ups and fabric brings back the fifties all the way down to seamed leg hose.



Die Frau ohne Schatten avoids the orchestra-soaked surroundscape that I deplore, but producers enjoy, presumably because the masses need to feel that since they paid for the equipment, they should hear the benefits, no matter how wrong-headed.  This from the folks who gave us “Pan & Scan” video.  Anyhow, this isn’t one of those.  The fabulous Vienna Philharmonic – the orchestra that gave this opera its premiere in 1919 - is detailed yet coherent; balances with the singers are perfect except for Wolfgang Koch’s Dyer, who is a little light.  Left/right stage effects are not highlighted, neither are they ignored.



The main attraction bonus feature is a 25-minute high-definition documentary presented 1.85:1 “Christian Thielemann Rehearses Die Frau ohne Schatten” filmed by Eric Schultz.  We follow this very popular conductor as he puts his singers and orchestra through their paces - the singers with rehearsal piano support.  The singers, in typical “making-of” tradition, have their say to the camera, commenting on the relation of text to singing.  The conductor, too, speaks to us directly, frequently commenting on his own directions to singers and orchestra.  This is an excellent, if all too brief piece on music making.  Christof Loy and Thielemann speak, independently, on what the opera is about, the meaning of the “shadow,” and the comparison to Mozart and Mendelssohn, not much on how it was decided to stage it the way it is, which is surprising, but that is left for the essay in the booklet. It’s a relief, for a change, that the back-slapping that so often fills endless minutes of similar features is absent here.  But on the evidence, Thielemann must be a joy to work with.



Whatever might be said of Christof Loy’s idiosyncratic conception and staging of Strauss’ most ambitious opera, it has the benefit of directing the audience to the music - and this turns out to be a good thing in this case since it is so well sung and ably played.  Video and audio are both excellent, too.   Still, I wouldn’t recommend this production to the uninitiated, but for anyone who loves Strauss, as I do, this is a worthy addition to one’s library.

Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

May 15, 2012

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