Unless you really believe women belong barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, the libretto of Richard Strauss’s sprawling Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow) is hard to love. Hugo von Hofmannsthal tells a complex and painfully reactionary tale about two couples – one divine, one human – who must learn the hard way that the woman’s lot is to obey and bear children. It would be easier to scoff if Strauss had not set the whole to such glorious music.
With Christian Thielemann on the podium, the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit, and a first-rate cast, this year’s Salzburg Festival was taking a safe bet for a triumphant opening premiere. And in Christof Loy they had a director who would grapple with the work’s more dubious aspects.
Loy finds a way to make the story more appealing through the tale of Karl Böhm’s legendary 1955 recording of the opera, for which the conductor persuaded the leading performers of his time to gather in Vienna. It was midwinter, the hall was not heated, and neither the performers nor the Decca recording team were paid for their efforts, but it was this recording that would bring the piece into the standard repertoire.
Instead of just telling Hofmannsthal’s convoluted tale of Emperor, Falcon, Dyer, etc, Loy tells the story of this recording session, lovingly recreating Vienna’s Sophiensäle and all the now-retro technology of a 1950s studio. Established singers, their wartime pasts variously shadowy, meet the new generation, and dramas of love and loyalty become increasingly tangled with the opera’s plot. Think Meeting Venus.
But for all the detail invested in this translation, Loy’s new construct remains opaque, and the production team was greeted with a mixture of boos and halfhearted cheers on the opening night. Thielemann, by contrast, was hailed with roars of approval. This is his party piece, and he gave the uncut score his all. The Vienna Philharmonic responded with playing of exceptional refinement, precision and warmth.
A strong cast was also met with enthusiasm. Evelyn Herlitzius took the honours for an impassioned, vulnerable Dyer’s Wife, offset by Wolfgang Koch’s gruff yet moving Dyer. As the Empress, Anne Schwanewilms spun beautiful lines with very little audible text. Michaela Schuster’s Amme was shrill and commanding. As Emperor, Stephen Gould took a long time to warm up, but provided one of the few voices that was undeniably big enough for his part and the Grosses Festspielhaus’s huge stage. Though Thielemann often whipped the orchestra into a bombastic frenzy, he never drowned out the singers, nor did he forget to polish the work’s many subtle details.