The Royal Opera – Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten [Johan Botha, Emily Magee, Johan Reuter & Elena Pankratova; directed by Claus Guth; conducted by Semyon Bychkov]

Die Frau ohne Schatten, Op.65 – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal [sung in German, with English surtitles]

Emperor – Johan Botha
Empress – Emily Magee
Barak – Johan Reuter
Barak’s Wife – Elena Pankratova
Nurse – Michaela Schuster
The One-Eyed – Adrian Clarke
The One-Armed – Jeremy White
The Hunchback – Hubert Francis
Spirit Messenger – Ashley Holland
Voice of the Falcon – Anush Hovhannisyan
Apparition of a Youth – David Butt Philip
Voice from Above – Catherine Carby
Guardian of the Threshold – Dušica Bijelić

Royal Opera Chorus

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Semyon Bychkov

Claus Guth – Director
Christian Schmidt – Designs
Olaf Winter – Lighting design
Andi A. Müller – Video designs

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 14 March, 2014
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Die Frau ohne Schatten, The Royal Opera, March 2014. Photograph: Clive BardaWhat is Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten? A supra-human comedy is the reasonable (if fudged) response, though with the moral proviso that inner fulfilment can only be attained through one’s own endeavours and, indeed, suffering. Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal doubtless had this in mind from the beginning of their collaboration in 1911, though the intervening six years prior to the opera’s completion saw both music and text take on incremental layers of meaning to result in their most complex and ambiguous undertaking.

Outside of Austro-German territories, stagings of Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow) have been intermittent. Some will recall John Cox’s typically focussed production for The Royal Opera over two decades ago, dominated by David Hockney’s always bewitching if overly fanciful designs. More recently, Christof Loy opted to set the work in the dreary post-Soviet environs of Vienna (specifically at the 1954 sessions for Karl Böhm’s recording), resulting in a narrowness and austerity seeming most intent on debunking the lavish Salzburg production values of yore. Somewhere between these approaches, while beholden to neither, is Claus Guth’s production (previously staged at La Scala) – subtly though (when necessary) powerfully defined in terms of a dream whose full extent only becomes apparent near the close of this lengthy opera, with three-hours-and-a-quarter of music.

The ‘ur-image’ is that of a woman (the Empress) set within the confines of a room whose unyielding wooden panels suggest an exclusive hospital. That the physical or psychological nature of her illness is never made explicit works to the advantage of an opera in which the moribund marriage between Empress and Emperor is paralleled by that between the mortal, or at least ‘lower rank’ figures of Barak – assuming the function of a butcher rather than dyer, which Guth doubtless feels anachronistic in the context of Western Europe today – and his wife, whose shadow the Empress must steal so as to prevent the Emperor turning to stone (symbolic parallels with Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage are not hard to divine, which only serves to underline the conceptual ubiquity of the present opera over the past century).

Die Frau ohne Schatten, The Royal Opera, March 2014. Photograph: Clive BardaEmpress and Wife duly enact mirror-image responses to inhibited partners in what is one of the production’s most arresting visual conceits. Elsewhere, Christian Schmidt’s designs are at their most striking in the mimetic figures of gazelle (the Empress’s animist alter-ego), antelope (replete with stick to suggest her ailing father Keikobad, ruler of the spirit-world), and a bird-headed woman representing the falcon through which Emperor and Empress were forcibly brought together. Olaf Winter’s lighting makes much of the frequently rapid interpenetration between the human and spirit worlds, while Andi A. Müller’s video designs complement the often-intricate orchestral interludes – even if images of sperm, foetuses and a hand stroking a pregnant womb (?) seem too simplistic a response to such densely-layered visions of renewal.

More than any other Strauss opera, Die Frau ohne Schatten calls for singing of the highest discipline and stamina. If not uniformly excellent (and bearing in mind that this was a first night), the cast was still a persuasive one. Emily Magee dominated the stage as the Empress as she needs do – her rendering of one of Strauss’s most exacting roles evincing insight and empathy in equal measure. As Barak’s Wife, Elena Pankratova brought expressive consistency to one whose pivoting between (proto-) female emancipation and guilt-ridden supplication sometimes seems contrived – not least through the depth of her lower register. As the Nurse, Michaela Schuster cut an ambivalent and even ominous figure – here less the servant than a master of others whose ultimate rejection by the Empress was an emotional highpoint of the evening.

If the principal male roles were not so engrossing, it was less to do with perceived emphasis in the production than to Strauss’s predilections (allied to which the cuts which are normally observed in the opera, as here, restrict the male contributions more overtly). That said, there was little to fault in Johan Botha’s Emperor, tonally lustrous and assuming an almost Wotan-like presence against the rocky outcrops in the later acts. As Barak, Johan Reuter suggested a nobly uncomprehending figure – his palpable humanity offsetting any sense of this being a Straussian take on the proletarian archetype. The trio of Barak’s Brothers, whose antics provide the only instances of outright comedy, was each finely taken – not least Jeremy White, whose spirited such cameos have become such a staple of ROH productions.David Butt Philip’s ardent Apparition of a Youth and Dušica Bijelić’s plaintive Guardian of the Threshold were both potent assumptions; as were Ashley Holland’s dextrous Spirit Messenger, Catherine Carby’s serenely eloquent Voice from Above and, most of all, Anush Hovhannisyan’s Voice of the Falcon – whose keening cries exuded almost primeval purity. The Royal Opera Chorus acquitted itself ably across the various ranks of servants and spirits, not least those black-winged angels which invade Barak’s quarters with dizzying abandon.

No stranger either to Strauss or the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Semyon Bychkov secured playing that brought out the heft and impact yet also the delicacy and finesse of what is its composer’s most all-encompassing score – though, in the first Act at least, phrasing of the long-limbed melodic lines was a little tentative, while the placing stage-right of the large percussion section (in what is a vast orchestral apparatus even by Strauss’s standards) led to instances of poor coordination. Bychkov’s dramatic pacing, moreover, was unobtrusively fine – keeping those enfolding layers of activity on a tight though never inflexible rein on the way to a final scene whose whimsical assembly of humans and animals adeptly drew attention away from the fact that the often bathetic closing pages are hardly among the opera’s finest.

Of course, no one production is likely to do full justice to a work whose visionary aspirations were recognised as potentially self-defeating by both Strauss and Hofmannsthal even as they proceeded. Better to accept it for what it is: a statement of faith in humanity conceived on a cultural crest and completed at a time of cultural collapse, which yet retains its potency today.

  • Six further performances at 6 p.m. – on March 17, 20, 23 (at 3 p.m.), 26 & 29, and on April 2
  • The performance on Saturday 29 March is broadcast live on BBC Radio 3

  • Royal Opera House

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