After a gap of 13 years, Richard Strauss’s biggest and most ambitious opera returns to London – in triumph. As a tribute to the composer on his 150th anniversary, the Royal Opera could hardly have done better, and the laurels go primarily to orchestra and conductor. This is a mammoth score to shape and hold together, not least in the final act, which Strauss himself felt lacked “the red corpuscles” that would lift it to a proper climax. But “lift” it did at Friday’s scorching first night, thanks to Semyon Bychkov’s unerring sense of its breadth and scale and sweep – balancing its energy and serenity in a way that was always convincing and sometimes overwhelming, but never too loud.
Claus Guth’s production, first staged in Milan two years ago, avoids the Arabian exotica and fairy-tale naiveté that have traditionally served this opera, preferring to interpret it in the context of the Vienna that gave it birth in 1919 – the city of dreams and psychoanalysis. This rebalances it away from the kitchen-sink drama some modern interpreters have favoured, and puts the focus instead on the fantasies, fears and neuroses of the character Strauss’s librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal saw as central – the Empress. The action is her dream-nightmare, in which she wrestles with the repressions at the heart of her own married life.
Guth and his designer, Christian Schmidt, do this so deftly that the opera’s symbols are clarified but never made facile. The “dream” gives a perverse logic to the more fanciful aspects of the Strauss/Hofmannsthal scenario, and has a liberating impact on the voiceless passages, where the animal world in Hofmannsthal’s original plan finds mesmerising expression. How odd that it has taken so long for the opera’s Freudian hinterland to be explored like this.
The principals are as good as you’ll get today. Emily Magee’s Empress and Elena Pankratova’s Dyer’s Wife have authentic, attractive Straussian voices, but Pankratova lacks charisma and Magee waits until the finale to summon an appropriate poise and intensity. The production maximises the vocal potential of Johan Botha’s Emperor and minimises his physical limitations. Johan Reuter makes a heart-warming Barak, while Michaela Schuster lends the Nurse pivotal stature. All in all, a vivid response to a challenging opera.