Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten is one of the most formidable works in the operatic repertoire – it is like performing Mahler’s 6th Symphony with the cast of Verdi’s Il Trovatore and the scenography of Wagner’s Ring. These superhuman requirements demand the sympathetic ear of the audience and probably also some gratitude. It is such a monumental and unique masterpiece that being able to see it live at all is an unmissable opportunity. An opportunity we should probably thank the Deutsche Oper’s Intendantin, even if she also happens to be the stage director.
If there is a subject in Operatic Stage Direction course called “how to stage act III”, Kirsten Harms probably missed it. As in her Tannhäuser, although her acts 1 and 2 are not the most amazing things on the face of Earth, they are quite acceptable – what she really ruins is the end. Here she tries to relate the plot to the time of the work’s creation – although the costumes suggest rather WWII, the action is set during WWI and we see the Empress and the Emperor living in a palace that looks like a hall in the Pergammonmuseum, while the Baraks live in their rather large and airy shanty. Since the sets are quite good-looking and the idea is not bad per se, I had no problem with that – but I confess I find Harms’s idea of deleting the plot’s magic elements self-defeating. As it is, the Empress and the Nurse’s scheming to get a shadow seems to be work exclusively on money. And I am not sure that this is the idea. But that is a detail compared to the fact that the Emperor here wird nicht zu Stein. He is kidnapped at night in front of the Empress’s eyes, who has no dream at all about that. Have I forgotten that the Nurse is executed by the Spirit Messenger? And that all the complex imagery imagined by Hofmannsthal to act III is reduced to a setting who seemed to be a rest from the closing tableau of an old production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut? Because Harms believes that, after act II, “nothing exists anymore, no imperial palace, no shelter for the impoverished; all dreams, all mistakes are over”. I am sorry – but that is not what the libretto says and it sounds just an excuse to justify the fact that the budget was used up in acts I and II.
Considering the economy of means on stage, one would feel inclined to turn to the pit to find riches of expression, but the truth is that Ulf Schirmer was a bit economical himself. He is a stylish Straussian who never forgot to play it “as if it were Così fan tutte”, keeping thus the proceedings extremely clean, elegant and transparent, but one could expect a bit more abundance of sound in the purely orchestral passages and a bit more Schwung in the highly dramatic situations of act II, for example. Lyric moments such as the Emperor’s act II scenes seriously lacked affection and forward movement.
Manuela Uhl does not exactly possess the hoher dramatische Sopran required in the score, but what she has does fine as well. Her jugendlich dramatisch voice has the necessary crystalline quality, she has easy top notes and knows how to spin a Straussian phrase, but exposed dramatic passages bring a touch of sourness and some flutter too. She is a committed actress, uttered a chilling “ich will nicht” and looks really well. Eva Johansson comes closer to the high dramatic soprano label and she can even floats high mezza voce, but her vocal production has many unstable and insecure moments. Because of her technical glitches, she is often too busy with the notes to find enough leeway to express anything. The difficult end of act II found her really out of sorts and often off pitch. When Robert Brubaker first opened his mouth, the words “James King” occurred to me, but soon it became clear that the role is too high for his voice and strained him beyond any possibility of smoothness. On the other hand, Johan Reuter’s dark and rich bass-baritone fills Straussian lines sensitively and elegantly. I leave the best for last: yes, it is true that bête de scène Doris Soffel is not a dramatic mezzo soprano, but she is the kind of artist who makes it happens, regardless of what “it” is. She is not afraid of going larger than life, knows how to create dramatic impact and has an endless supply of forceful top notes. Finally, the Deutsche Oper should be praised for the high quality of singers in small roles, particularly Hulkar Sabirova in a series of key high soprano parts.