Now that Die Frau ohne Schatten has come into vogue in opera houses across Europe—even modest-sized ones that might previously have baulked at its monumental challenges—it was both natural and overdue for the salzburg festival to be reconnecting with a work that has featured there very intermittently. As one of Strauss’s spiritual homes, Salzburg gave FroSch top billing this summer, making it the first new production of the festival (reviews of the rest will follow next month), and certainly the most lavish.
No less naturally in this place, the production (July 29) explored something of the work’s history. Enter Christof Loy, whose stagings increasingly tend to be about works rather than of them. There was certainly no question here of his just trying to tell the story, and perhaps he was understandably reluctant to go too deeply into the women-belong-barefoot-and-pregnant-in-the-kitchen message of this Strauss-Hofmannsthal fairy-tale epic. Instead, he delved into the connections of Die Frau to Vienna, where it was premiered in 1919 and where it was first recorded in 1955: Johannes Leiacker’s fantastically detailed set recreated the old Sofiensaal, used for many famous recordings (though not, actually, Karl Böhm’s pioneering version of this opera—that was made at the Musikverein), and Loy’s recording-session scenario had a new generation of postwar singers encountering stars of the 1940s, artists with a ‘shadow’ (in 1955 the young Leonie Rysanek’s Empress was cast alongside the veteran Elisabeth Höngen’s Nurse). Using the entire width of the grossesfestpielhaus stage, this Meeting Venus-like show came complete with cameos of recording engineers operating retro-technology, fussy attendants and (in the dream scene) seven-year-old alter-egos, all dressed by Ursula Renzenbrink in dowdy ’50s costumes.
No longer was the title’s ‘woman without a shadow’ simply childless, or the opera quite such an ideological hymn to fertility. While complicating an already multi-layered plot, Loy did away with the different worlds and spirit apparitions (the Falcon became a trouser-suited singer) stipulated in Hofmannsthal’s libretto: was it a smart way around some notoriously difficult stage directions, or simply a cop-out? What initially seemed like a highly costumed concert performance gradually took on its own fascination—before ending with, indeed, a Christmas concert by a boys’ choir. One was reminded that Strauss had even accused Alfred Roller of giving up the ‘magic tricks’ in his designs for the premiere, writing that he ‘might as well write an oratorio and have done with the stage altogether!’. Loy’s approach could open the floodgates when it comes to tricky pieces, and a version of The Knot Garden set in Walthamstow Town Hall cannot be far off now.
Adding verisimilitude was the presence of the Vienna Philharmonic—itself the orchestra of Böhm’s 1955 recording—on glowing and magnificent form. Christian Thielemann used the occasion to consolidate his position in his (surprisingly belated) operatic debut at Salzburg. A 52-year-old golden boy in the eyes of most at Salzburg, he may be a throwback to the time when podium-dictators still roamed the earth, but in late-Romantic, Austro-German repertoire he has few rivals, as this performance showed. Die Frau is Strauss’s longest opera, and Thielemann recognized that it combines all aspects of the composer’s style, breathing the fire of Elektra yet finding room for the lyrical wit of Ariadne.
Thielemann held these elements in perfect balance and paced the huge spans faultlessly. Apologies for leaving the voices to last—but that is how it felt in the theatre, especially as the singing was solid rather than spectacular. The outstanding performance came from Evelyn Herlitzius, who channelled all the bitterness of Barak’s Wife into diva histrionics and put all her vocal prowess at the service of vivid, communicative words. Anne Schwanewilms’s cleanly-sung Empress was a little anonymous by comparison. Stephen Gould had heft as the Emperor, but the sympathetic Wolfgang Koch could surely have made more of Barak, one of the great baritone roles. Michaela Schuster was the dark-toned Nurse. A clever—too clever?—and fascinating evening.