The first time I saw Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s ‘massive and artificial’ (Strauss’s words) operatic fairy tale Die Frau ohne Schatten performed by Welsh National Opera, programme and posters were garlanded with images by the Belgian symbolist painter Fernand Khnopff, whose enigmatically titled ‘I Lock My Door Against Myself’ is pictured up top, his ‘Sleeping Medusa’ below. The opera’s unsettling, decadent atmosphere, its clash of spirit and human worlds, was not exactly Khnopffed but well served all the same by the spare yet effective and magically lit touring production (and great Norman Bailey sang the role of Barak the Dyer – I’m pleased still to have his singing in Act 1 on an old cassette).
Yet it’s worth remembering that, begun as it was before the First World War, this optimistic fantasy finally premiered in a Vienna stricken by post war austerity. The mood had changed – as had Strauss’s, who, as he waited for Hofmannsthal to get the last bits of text to him in 1916, decided that such monuments were now out of joint with the troubled times and felt ‘downright called upon to become the Offenbach of the 20th century’ instead.
Quite apart from its dodgy moral-majority message that you’re incomplete without children – which can be sidestepped by special pleading that the subjects are really creativity and compassion - Frau is, no doubt, problematic in that it starts out taking the magic seriously in an astonishingly scored first act and finishes by not believing enough in its happy end. But does this justify wrenching it to another time and place still reeling from calamities, a chilly 1950s Vienna of underheated recording-studio halls and drab winter clothing, where a stiff Christmas concert performance deputises for the portentous finale?
That’s director Christof Loy’s solution, and I’m still in two minds about his 2011 Salzburg Festival production, now preserved on an Opus Arte DVD. It does humanise all five principal characters – on one side the Emperor and the Empress who has not yet born him a child, on the other the dissatisfied wife who may or may not give up the shadow the other woman needs and her placid husband, with the Mephistophelean Nurse as conniving go-between. There is, though, one huge problem. I genuinely believe that, for all the mumbo-jumbo, the essence of Hofmannsthal’s plot is rather simple as it follows the Empress’s path to enlightened rejection of the shadow, the realization that she cannot buy her own happiness at the cost of others. Loy replaces, rather than parallels, it with a recording-studio ‘storyline’ that’s so oblique it doesn’t begin to make sense. His exhortation of Strindberg’s preface to A Dream Play suggests that he never intended it to.
Anyway, it’s not my place here to discuss the DVD as a whole, which I’ve done within the constraints of a BBC Music Magazine review yet to be published. I will say that I was alternately fascinated and baffled, never repelled, by the production, but always in thrall to Thielemann’s magisterially beautiful conducting of the Vienna Philharmonic and to the Empress of my Straussian idol Anne Schwanewilms (pictured up top by Monika Rittershaus for the Salzburg Festival).
It’s not a flawless performance, but so expressively right for the translucent not-quite-earthly girl who becomes a deeply feeling human being. Prior to the DVD release with English subtitles, chunks of the telly screening went up on YouTube, so watch and hear, if you will, the Empress’s awakening scene in Act One – that’s a keenly-inflecting Michaela Schuster as the Nurse at the start, and you can decide whether you want to go on to their scene together, a bit of a trial without translation -
and the culminating ‘judgment of Solomon’ scene of Act Three in which the Empress has to decide whether to take the shadow or not. Maddeningly, there’s no dramatic substitute for the usual suspense as to whether the elusive shadow will appear on cue or not, or for the chilling sight of the Emperor petrified except for his eyes; but I reckon Schwanewilms holds the intensity of the drama with her vocal and physical expressiveness. Again, you can probably forego the barky aftermath of heldentenor Stephen Gould’s contribution.