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Monday, November 4, 2013

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Die Frau ohne Schatten

Richard Strauss' mighty, mystic morality tale returns.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Emperor (Torsten Kerl, left), the Empress (Christine Schwanewilms) and the
Red Falcon (Scott Nelson) in a moment from Die Frau ohne Schatten.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
Die Frau ohne Schatten is a beloved Richard Strauss opera, but like a comet, it is only seen occasionally. Constructed on an enormous scale and requiring a huge orchestra, this 1919 work is at once a fairy tale, an ode to domestic harmony and a celebration of the joys of having children.

The story of Frau is a quest, like Zauberflöte on a giant, heroic scale. The Empress of the South Seas (Anne  Schwanewilms) embarks on a quest to (literally) cast a shadow, a symbol of fertility. She enters into a devil's bargain with a Dyer's Wife (Christine Goerke). In the last act, all the characters are brought to a temple and judged by the fairy king Keikobad, the Empress' father. The whole thing ends happily, with a glorious quartet and children's chorus.

This gorgeous, phantasmagorical production by Herbert Wernicke makes brilliant use of the Met's hi-tech stage machinery and mirrored walls to reproduce the unearthly effects called for by the libretto. Telling the story with simple sets, ornate costumes and creative use of the house's stage elevators, the Wernicke production is long overdue for revival. (It was scheduled for 2008 but later nixed in favor of Elektra.) The stellar cast includes heldentenor Torsten Kerl as the Emeror and Johan Reuter as Barak the Dyer. Vladimir Jurowski conducts.

Die Frau Ohne Schatten opens Nov. 7. Go see it! There are only six performances and none of them are being broadcast in the Live in HD series (although if any opera production deserves preservation it's this one.) There are a lot of recordings (seven, by my count) of this opera. Since producing Frau is so difficult, the opera has acquired a second life on disc with competing versions from most of the major labels. There's even a great production of the opera from Salzburg which is set during the recording sessions for the classic Karl Böhm recording made in Vienna in 1955. There's a review here.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Karl Bohm (Deutsche Grammophon, 1977)
Barak: Walter Berry
His Wife: Birgit Nilsson
The Emperor: James King
The Empress: Leonie Rysanek
The Nurse: Ruth Hesse
This live recording captures the thrill of this opera in the theater as led by Karl Böhm, a master Straussian who received the dedication of one of the composer's later operas (Daphne.) Böhm takes some judicious stage cuts, but who cares? He's got Birgit Nilsson singing her lungs out as the Dyer's Wife, and an unbeatable pair (James King and Leonie Rysanek) as the Emperor and Empress.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Wolfgang Sawallisch (EMI, 1988)
Barak: Alfred Muff
His Wife: Ute Vinzing
The Emperor: René Kollo
The Empress: Cheryl Studer
The Nurse: Hanna Schwarz
The late Wolfgang Sawallisch was one of the greatest Strauss conductors of the late 20th century. This excellent (and recently reissued) Die Frau has a committed cast of soloists who perform the score without cuts, so the dramatic action of the second and third acts actually makes sense. Some of the singers are less well known (who the hell is Ute Vinzing and why didn't she make more records?) René Kollo is near the end here but still game as the Emperor. Cheryl Studer is very good (caught at a peak) as the Empress. The digital stereo is very bright--but it was 1988. It is currently available as part of a Warner Brothers box set dedicated to Strauss operas.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Sir Georg Solti (Decca, 1992)
Barak: José Van Dam
His Wife: Hildegard Behrens
The Emperor: Plácido Domingo
The Empress: Julia Varady
The Nurse: Reinheld Runkel
This was a "vanity" project right at the end of Sir Georg's career, a note-frnote studio recording of the original score with a starry international cast. In some ways, the Solti Frau represents the end of an era: after this most operas would be recorded onstage or in concert. With luminaries like Hildegard Behrens and Placido Domingo, this was the state of the art in singing and recorded engineering two decades ago. Like the Sawallisch it is also note-complete. it is currently available as part of The Strauss Operas, a bargain box of the conductor's six Strauss recordings on Decca, issued for the conductor's 100th birthday.

Tickets for Die Frau ohne Schatten are available at MetOperaFamily.Org, by calling (212) 362-6000, or at the box office starting August 11.

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