Christoph Loy, in his 2011 Salzburg production of Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten, avoids the problem of how to represent the Spirit World by essentially eliminating it. Instead we get a Konzept based on Böhm’s first recording of the work in Vienna’s Sofiensalle in 1955. Vienna is still recovering from the war and the hall is unheated and the singers unpaid. The Empress is rising star Leonie Rysanek and the Nurse is long time favourite Elisabeth Höngen. They represent the generations separated by the war. The Emperor is an American singing in Europe for the first time and, crucially, Barak and his wife are a real life married couple. Initially we see a lot of recording studio action as singers are moved about by actors in this experiment in early stereo. Then the action, particularly the Barak/Wife interaction slips more and more off stage. For the finale, we get a sort of celebratory concert in evening dress. It’s not a bad concept and this cast handles it very well but I fancy it’s a tough introduction to this far from straightforward opera and it does lose the magic of the Spirit World. (In other words I’m glad I saw the Met production before this one.)
Along the way there are some interesting touches. The “boy toy” the Nurse produces for the Dyer’s Wife comes complete with showgirls. At the crucial point where both women are philosophising about there feelings about having children all the extra; recording crew, maids etc, become children and right at the end, during the “concert”, there are some very strange things going on with the stage audience.
The performances are all very good. Anne Schwanewilms is the Empress andd her silvery voice has an uncanny knack of cutting through the orchestra without sounding at all slicey. Evelyn Herlitzius is a powerful and impassioned Dyer’s wife and interacts very well with Wolfgang Koch’s sympathetic Barak. Stephen Gould sounds lovely as the Emperor and Michaela Schuster manages to convey both aspects of the Nurse’s role in this production; both malevolent spirit and older diva. Perhaps the real stars here though are the Wiener Philharmoniker and Christian Thielemann. It’s a nuanced, detailed and transparent rendering of the score that probes it’s complexities with some subtlety.
This was recorded in HD and looks and sounds (DTS surround) about as good on DVD as a disk can be. It’s also available on Blu-ray. The video direction by Karina Fibich is unobtrusive and, since this isn’t a production given to grand visual statements, her focus on the actors seems sensible. There is a good documentary focussing on Thielemann’s preparation of the work but with a few good clips from Loy as well. Subtitle options are English, French, German and Spanish. The booklet contains a very good essay on the production by Mike Ashman and a synopsis. I suspect it also includes a track listing but I can’t be sure as some unspeakable fiend has cut all the English language content out of the library copy booklet.
So, a strongly sung and played performance of a rather intriguing production of a seldom seen work. As such it’s definitely worth seeing but is perhaps not the best option for someone new to the work.