R. Strauss’s Frau ohne Schatten’s first studio recording has a legendary status – Karl Böhm tried to convince Decca’s Moritz Rosengarten to take profit of his excellent Vienna State Opera cast and record the opera for the first time. Rosengarten agreed to the proposal but offered him such a limited budget that the cast was obliged to sing for free in an unheated studio. The result, in experimental stereo sound, is the performance by which every other is judged. Including the one presented by the Salzburg Festival this evening. Why am I telling all this? Well, because director Christof Loy supposes that everyone in the audience knows that, even if it actually has intrinsically nothing to do with the opera composed by Richard Strauss and written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal.
The plot of Frau ohne Schatten is one of the most complex in the whole repertoire, based on a wide-ranging and hermetic symbolism that addressed nonetheless some of the most important issues both in psychological and sociological levels at the time of its creation. If there is an opera that still needs a director to guide the audience through it, this is Frau ohne Schatten. It is a formidable task – those who are brave enough, such as David Pountney, have made a stab at it, most hide behind vague stylization, but Loy is the first director I have heard of who has given up before he tried. When Mary Zimmerman staged Bellini’s La Sonnambula as a rehearsal and portrayed all characters as singers et al, she met with harsh criticism, but I have to say that a) although Zimmerman did not really get the plot of La Sonnambula, it is a story a five-year-old kid would understand; and b) although Zimmerman’s concept was poorly developed, her stage direction itself was quite efficiently done, in the sense that there were well-defined characters, an imaginative use of the scenic space and actors acted well. I cannot say the same of this evening’s performance – the beautifully built scenery shows the Sofiensaal (where Solti’s Ring and not Böhm’s Frau ohne Schatten was recorded) prepared for recording sessions. Even if Loy explains very clearly his concept in the booklet – the Empress is a young singer who has to deal with her inner conflicts and mature as an artist through the experience of seeing a bitter aging diva (the Amme) trying to ruin the marriage of a younger colleague (Barak’s Wife) with prospects of success – what one basically sees is: singers with a score on a music stand while an engineer records it. The funny thing is that it is far less interesting than The Golden Ring documentary, where Birgit Nilsson, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Georg Solti are far more fascinating characters under God’s direction. Unlike some other members of the audience, I did not feel that I had to close my eyes to concentrate on the music, but – considering that the future of the euro is a bit uncertain right now – I feel sorry that so much money has been spent for exchange of insights below soap-opera level.
Under these circumstances, the audience certainly turned its attention to the musical side of the performance, and Christian Thielemann more than met the challenge. His performances of FroSch in the Deutsche Oper have left a very positive memory in Berlin and, if there is a composer in whose work the German conductor’s skills are not doubted, this is Richard Strauss. And this opera’s original orchestra is the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (both in the first performance and in the Böhm recording*). Therefore, hearing him conduct it with the Vienna Philharmonic has a special meaning. As he explained in the booklet, Richard Strauss’s music is so multilayered and dramatic that it requires from conductors the discipline to restrain themselves and let the music speak by itself. On listening to this evening’s performance, one could see that Thielemann really meant it. His approach is extremely respectful to the score, performed without cuts. It is at once full-toned (without being simply loud) and structurally transparent. He never forces the flow of this music and masterly knows how to build a climax. This evening, I have discovered many niceties in this work that I had previously never noticed. And it is doubly praiseworthy that one never felt a pedantic effort to highlight details, this happened quite naturally. To make things better, the orchestra was at its resplendent best, expressive solo passages, amazingly warm and rich sound picture and real commitment from the musicians. If Thielemann lacks Böhm extraordinary sense of “special effect”, it is probably because Böhm never felt he had to “respect” a score that he felt as his very own.
Considering the sense of care that the conductor obviously have with every little aspect of the score, it is most curious that he did not always care to follow the composer’s description of what kind of voice goes for each role. For example, the Kaiserin is supposed to be a hoch dramatisch soprano and the Amme, a dramatic mezzo soprano. Anne Schwanewilms is probably the less dramatic soprano who ever sang the role of the Empress. Although her voice has a cutting edge, it just does not work here: her high register is pinched, fluttery and often thin; her low register is mostly left to imagination and she has the habit of pecking at notes or finishing them by a downwards portamento that I find quite unsettling. I understand that one wishes to hear a crystalline sound in this role – and Schwanewilms has it and is obviously a sensitive singer and also a good actress – but, overparted as she is here, every advantage can only be counted as such if you take too many things in consideration. I frankly thought Manuela Uhl in Berlin far more consistent (although she isn’t either a hoch dramatisch sopran, at least she is a jugendlich dramatisch soprano with properly supported flashing top notes). Other than this, I am not being ironic when I say that, this evening, she offered one of the most exciting accounts of the melodrama I have ever heard. As for Michaela Schuster, even if one can see she has all the right ideas about the role of the Amme, her voice is too light for it. If Strauss gave the Kaiserin a lighter orchestral texture to pierce through, such is not the case of the mezzo soprano part. It does require a hefty, bright, exciting voice. This evening, I too often had to add in my mind Grace Hofmann from Karajan’s recording to fill in the blanks of an overshadowed if charismatic singer. I must say, though, that friends who saw her in previous performances told me that today was below her standard in this run.
I have to confess I found Stephen Gould’s name in the cast list with some surprise. Although he is a singer who definitely finds no problems in being heard over a large orchestra, the role of the Kaiser requires a brighter and higher voice than his. It is also true that many a Siegmund-esque Heldentenor has tried it, usually with little success. Gould did sing better than most – he can keep a line in some unsingable parts (and he even sang “es ist anstatt ihrer” instead of the usual replacement “es ist für die Herrin”) – but he often had to operate carefully and couldn’t avoid the strain in the end of his second “aria”. Wolfgang Koch was a reliable Barak who lacked a tiny little bit velvetier and a nobler tone, as Johan Reuter’s in Berlin and Michael Volle’s in Zürich (to keep within recent performances). With the exception of a Thomas Johanns Mayer’s Messenger Spirit (clearly in a bad-voice day), minor roles were uniformly strongly cast: Rachel Frenkel was a very accurate Voice of the Falcon, Peter Sonn sang the “young man”‘s long lines without effort and Markus Brück, Steven Humes and Andreas Conrad were the best trio of Barak’s brothers I have ever heard. I leave the best for last – an incandescent Evelyn Herlitzius in the best performance of her life. Since the bad press she got in Bayreuth for Ortrud, I notice she has done a very serious effort of re-thinking her singing and the result is a far more relaxed tonal quality, a cleaner attack in softer dynamics and a warmer sound. Here all of them used to great effect – without any loss in her Nilson-esque missile-like acuti that could fill a hall twice larger than the Grossesfestspielhaus. She also acted with great sincerity and commitment.
*The Vienna Philharmonic, which comprised of members of the Opera orchestra, appears in some of Karl Böhm’s live recording’s (including the one released by DGG with Birgit Nilsson), Herbert von Karajan’s live recordings and both Georg Solti’s live and studio recording).