Die Frau ohne Schatten - Grosses Festspielhaus Salzburg, 29 July 2011 (first night)
It now seems incredible that Strauss's musically richest and most colourful opera was dismissed as 'boring' by its first critics. Christian Thielemann coaxed the Vienna Philharmonic into a display of such aural opulence on its Friday premiere that it was easy to overlook the deficiencies of Christof Loy's meagre production.
The story of a barren spirit-Empress in search of the human shadow which will signify the ability to have children, the opera is notoriously difficult to stage. Any 'straight' interpretation would surely induce the sort of illicit giggles usually reserved for overly realistic Wagnerian dragons.
But what Loy has produced is little more than a concert staging in fancy dress. Inspired by the circumstances of the opera's first recording in 1955, he has turned the Festspielhaus into a faithful replica of Vienna's Sofiensälen, where the cast are, guess what, recording Die Frau ohne Schatten. It's all set out very realistically, with studio staff busying around with lights and microphones.
A parallel drama takes place during the sessions, as the real-life couple recording the roles of Barak and his wife go through marital difficulties, egged on by the old shrew playing the role of the Empress's Nurse. The Empress, an inexperienced young singer, watches and learns. Where this made-up story doesn't fit the opera's text - and of course there are many sections - he craftily fell back on observing a group of people making a recording. Scenes where the studio staff were substituted with child replicas and a troupe of dancing girls appeared were simply baffling. For the finale he introduced, out of nowhere, a Christmas concert. Loy's programme notes make the enterprise no clearer.
Still, the music was fabulous. The swoonworthy melodies which earned the work the 'boring' label were cushioned on the lush bed of the Vienna strings. But there's so much more to it than tunes - atonal bombast, lyricism and chamber-like delicacy each take their turn. Thielemann's great skill lies in respecting every note while never losing sight of the overall picture, unfurling a palette of seemingly infinite breadth and depth. A few unexpected technical blips aside, the Vienna Philharmonic played with heart and commitment, producing some mesmerising solos and intuitive ensemble work.
The cast measured up - just - to the very taxing singing demands, with Evelyn Herlitzius in particular in powerful form as the hysterical Dyer's Wife. Her husband Barak remained somewhat formless, but the part was elegantly sung by Wolfgang Koch. As the Nurse, Michaela Schuster had a forceful and central stage presence, conveying evil intentions more through her twisted facial expressions than her strong but unshaded voice. Anne Schwanewilms made a gentle and ethereal Empress, despite a few problems at the top of her range. Stephen Gould's Emperor began magnificently, but his rich baritonal timbre gradually lost its fullness as the evening progressed. Still, it's a long and tough evening for singers.
There were cheers for the musicians (Thielemann particularly), but a few members of the audience couldn't wait to share their opinions of the production team. The first boo arrived, from someone clearly unacquainted with the opera, between the penultimate and final chords of the first act. In a clear case of mistaken identity, the first non-singer to appear on stage at the end, the hapless children's choir master, also received his share. It was nothing compared to the reception for Loy himself though - from the back of the theatre, it seemed as if the booing was entirely untempered by applause. I rate this production's chances of revival as slim.
The performance was televised on 3Sat - here's some video: