Die Frau ohne Schatten is arguably Richard Strauss’s most formidable score, composed to Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s most complex libretto, the symbolism of which is almost awkward in its multiple levels. Magic opera, psychological drama, myth, social analysis… there is plenty to choose in it. To make things more difficult, the music is some sort of Straussian showcase – from the multicolored chamber music atmosphere of Ariadne auf Naxos to the all-together-now hysteria of Elektra. That operatic Goliath does not seem to have intimidated Zürich’s small but brave opera house, though.
Although director David Pountney believes that the work is about the discovery of one’s own humanity, he seems to focus his staging on the social disintegration caused by the exploitation of working class in the early day of capitalism, more of less Hofmannsthal’s lifetime. Thus, the story is set on the decline of the Habsburg monarchy. While the Emperor and the Empress are here shown as k. u. k. aristocrats, Barak and his wife are proletarians in a sewing workshop. The Nurse is a key figure in this context, since she is portrayed as something like a less fortunate relative who depends on her patrons’ favors (therefore, her interest in the Empress comes through more like self-interest than in other stagings). The magic elements of the plot are not abandoned, however. The surrealistic aesthetics of Max Ernst serve as inspiration to dream-like costumes and sets. Many ideas come through quite effectively, such s the play-in-the-play seduction of the Dyer’s Wife, where the Amme literally stages the poor woman’s romanesque fantasies (it is truly amazing how the music fits this concept), but many a detail ultimately seem unintentionally comical, such as the ballet-dancer falcon (why people feel that they have to bring the “voice of the falcon” to the stage?) or the walking dolls cloaked in white who are supposed to be the Ungeborene… If the many imaginative touches do not make an unforgettable experience, poor direction of actors is to blame. The cast did not seem comfortable with what they had to do and most scenes gave the impression of a routine followed with little conviction and almost no coherence: the tenor’s approach was stand-and-deliver, the baritone offered naturalistic acting and both sopranos seemed entirely lost. Only the mezzo seemed to invest the stylized acting required from her.
Franz Welser-Möst similarly eschewed any larger-than-life quality in his reading. The Opernhaus Zürich has a small auditorium and its orchestra is used to produce leaner sounds. Moreover, the conductor professes that Straussian style should involve lighter textures over which the text can still be easily followed by the audience. Let’s call it the “Cosi-fan-tutte golden rule”. I have to confess that I took some time to adjust to the undernourished orchestral sound, especially in what regards the string section. There was transparence in plenty, but the fact that the sound never ever blossomed even in the orchestral interludes finally robbed the music of a great deal of its impact. The end of act I sounded particularly deprived of substance. That could be overseen, if volume had been replaced by accent (as Marc Minkowski has showed us in his performance of R. Wagner’s Die Feen at the Théâtre du Châtelet), but, alas, the lack of forward movement and a sameness in what regard phrasing all in favor of orchestral polish finally suggested overcautiousness. The Mozartian poise had its advantages – a particularly clean ensemble in the difficult act II closing scene – but I am not really sure if this is how FroSch should sound.
The role of the Kaiserin is a bit high for Emily Magee, who had to chop her phrases too often to prepare for the next dramatic high note. However, her creamy soprano is a Straussian instrument by nature and, even when tested, she never produced a sour note during the whole opera. Jenice Baird was a puzzling Färberin. I have never heard her in such good voice – she really sang the part in her rich vibrant dramatic soprano, but seemed to be sleepwalking in the interpretative and dramatic departments. Her rather slow delivery of the text drained the Färberin music of all its bite. Although Birgit Remmert was quite overparted as the Amme, the size of the hall helped her to produce the right effect in this role. She has spacious low notes, clear declamation and, even if her top register is a bit strained, that did not prevent to produce some firm acuti. I know: Roberto Saccà’s voice is ugly, but I must say that I have never listened to anyone sing this part with such flowing lyricism, nuance and ringing top notes before. He almost convinced me that the role should be cast with jugendlich dramatisch voices. Michael Volle was extremely well cast as Barak – his spacious baritone is extremely pleasant on the ear and he sang sensitively throughout.