2020 May Kirsten Flagstad -1206
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Die Frau ohne Schatten, Strauss

Hugo Shirley

Anne Schwanewilms (Empress), Evelyn Herlitzius (Dyer’s Wife), Rachel Frenkel (Voice of the Falcon), Christina Landshamer (Guardian of the Threshold), Michaela Schuster (Nurse), Maria Radner (Voice from Above), Stephen Gould (Emperor), Peter Sonn (Apparition of a Youth), Markus Brück, Steven Humes, Andreas Conrad (Barak’s Brothers), Thomas Johannes Mayer (Spirit Messenger), Wolfgang Koch (Barak), Salzburger Festspiele Kinderchor, Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, c. Christian Thielemann, p. Christof Loy, d. Johannes Leiacker, video director Karina Fibich. Opus Arte DVD OA 1072 D/Blu-ray OA BD7104 D (220 minutes)


This DVD of Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s great psychological fairy tale, filmed last July at the Grosses Festspielhaus in Salzburg, doesn’t shy away from showing the audience’s reaction. We see Christof Loy and his team face a barrage of boos at their curtain call that is rivalled only—on recent films at least—by that faced by Katharina Wagner for her Bayreuth Meistersinger. Watching Loy’s production, it’s easy to understand the reaction. It’s nothing to with any sort of audience prudishness, though—Salzburg audiences have probably seen more brothels than most, as it were. Rather, Loy, many of whose productions revel in stretching, refocussing and undercutting conventional drama, here, I fear, pushes the patience too far.

That’s not to say, however, that the basic premise for the production isn’t a fascinating one. He maps onto the opera’s plot a narrative of Frau’s first studio recording, Karl Böhm’s for Decca in 1955. The opera’s characters all become singers in an impeccably-recreated Sofiensaal in Vienna: the Empress (loosely identifiable with Leonie Rysanek) is young, inexperienced and making her first recording; the Emperor is an aloof, seasoned foreigner; Barak and his wife are an operatic couple whose marriage is on the rocks; the Nurse becomes a bitter and resentful veteran. On paper this makes a lot of sense, and that first, post-World War II recording certainly had interesting parallels with the work’s post-World War I premiere. The Dyer’s Wife, as is well known, was also in part modelled on Strauss’s wife, and one of Hofmannsthal’s very earliest notes for the work even sees the character as having sacrificed motherhood to maintain not just her physical beauty, but also that of her voice.

But Loy seems either unaware of such possibilities, or simply unwilling to explore them. In fact, the main source of disappointment here is not any weakness in the production’s starting point, rather it is that that starting point remains, more or less, the middle and end point too: there is minimal development, no evidence whatsoever of concern that the production and Hofmannsthal’s libretto pass like ships in the night. The ‘singers’ come and go, and the arguments between Barak and his wife work to an extent, but I felt sorry for Anne Schwanewilms, throwing herself body and soul into the Empress’s (uncut) spoken outbursts in final act, where all her (and, for that matter, Hofmannsthal’s) effort is wasted. The triumphant final scene, staged as a Christmas concert along with cheesy slow-motion handshakes and kisses makes Strauss’s score ring hollow, ignoring the opera’s ostensibly reactionary message when it should engage and criticize it. Whenever I felt myself being drawn into the opera’s drama, Loy’s own narrative reliably snapped me out of it. As an exercise in demonstrating a director’s power, it’s strangely impressive; as a way of experiencing the opera, it’s persistently, excruciatingly frustrating.


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