Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten is a problematic work on many levels. Hofmannsthal’s complicated and heavily symbolic libretto places considerable demands on both audience and director. There are ideas about women, marriage and child bearing in the libretto that sit very uncomfortably with modern audiences. It’s also a beast to cast requiring not just a truly Helden tenor and soprano but a second soprano of almost equal heft who can handle some fairly tricky coloratura. It’s also long and requires a large orchestra. In some ways it’s surprising that it gets performed as often as it does although when done well it’s a piece of quite extraordinary beauty and power.
Jonathan Kent’s production for St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre was recorded in 2011. It’s a fairly literal effort. The Spirit World is very beautiful with clear kabuki influences. The human world is represented by an almost modern dye works. Barak’s house has a row of gian washing machines, he drives a beat up Soviet era car and there’s a CRT TV constantly on. It looks like the Russian equivalent of Essex c. 1980. It’s pretty successful as a setting and good use is made of video projections during the transitional orchestral passages. There are some striking moents including the two appearances of Barak’s wife’s fantasy lover, when everything goes blue. The transition from Act 2 to 3 is also interesting with a very effective “deluge” and Act 3 opening on a kind of blasted heath with debris from the shop in odd places. The point at which the Empress gets her shadow too is both grand and effective. Overall, I think it works very well and if it doesn’t quite have the impact of Wernicke’s wonderful (and sadly unrecorded) Met production. it’s preferable to Christoph Loy’s rather over clever Salzburg effort.
The all Russian cast is pretty strong. I particularly like Mlada Khudoley’s totured Empress. She has lots of power and flexibility, if not perhaps the glittering high notes of an Anne Schwanewillms. Olga Sergeeva is very effective as Barak’s wife. Her persona is completely credible and she manages the demands of the music well. The pick of the men is probably the Barak of Edem Umerov. He manages a well sung performance that is credible as a sort of slightly simple and long suffering Everyman. Avgust Amonov is a pretty decent Emperor and Olga Savova is a convincing Nurse, though perhaps stronger as an actress than a singer. The orchestra under, inevitably, Valery Gergiev sounds absolutely terrific and, of course, they have a lot to do. Gergiev’s pacing and dynamics seem very sure and the orchestral passages are very impressive.
This is all set on a big stage with a complex lighting plot, videos and special effects so it can’t have been easy to film. Henning Kasten does a decent job. He occasionally overelaborates which really isn’t needed but most of the time he shows us what we need to see. The picture quality on Blu-ray is excellent and both the surround and stereo sound tracks are vivid and spacious. They are also realistically balanced resisting the temptation to bring the voices too far to the fore. There are no extras and the documentation is limited to a synopsis (in painfully small print). There are English, French, German, Spanish and Russian subtitles.