Die Frau ohne Schatten (ROH, 20 March 2014)

  • The Emperor: Johan Botha 
  • The Empress: Emily Magee
  • The Nurse: Michaela Schuster
  • Barak: Johan Reuter
  • Barak’s Wife: Elena Pankratova

The rest of the cast1

Conductor: Semyon Bychkov | Orchestra & Chorus of the ROH

Director: Claus Guth

A ROH/La Scala co-production

1) This was LOUD. My belcanto-loving ears are still ringing.
2) Cor blimey gov’nor, I actually liked a Guth production. It worked, it didn’t seem forced or gratuitous.

If I were to ever use the term “magical” about an opera this is it. Not in the fae sense, because although it’s got fairytale elements it’s not for children. Rather because it feels so alien to everything else I listen to. My relationship with Richard Strauss in general is different. I don’t know that I should like his music but I do. It’s too loud, too through-composed and often times too sentimental (not here) – but it works on some mysterious level. The first time I heard a recording of this opera I was mesmerised and very much turned inside out. I had no idea what the hell was going on in the libretto, I simply responded to the sound.

I’m missing too many reference points so I’m just going to jot down impressions.

The stage design made me think the whole thing took place inside The Barbican: a maze-like, cold, claustrophobic structure. That is indeed how nightmares tend to feel. The sets were very thick (4ft or so by the looks of them), faux-wood finish panels on a revolving section of the stage at the back. That worked very well for the page turning concept that introduced every new, contrasting scene. In front of the revolving section there were two conveyor belt sections which brought in characters or such stage elements as the dinner table and the dyer’s table or the beds and the boat.

The choreography was impressive, especially the Horus-like Falcon. He moved in a convincing bird-like manner and fleshed out intricate details in the very busy score. I loved his interaction with the orchestra.

The orchestra and Maestro Bychkov: although I have a lot of affection for the music, this is not the kind of opera I can listen to all the time. For that reason it’s hard for me to compare this performance to others. Just in and of itself it felt thoroughly satisfying and engrossing, especially the brass (that bass tuba stayed with me long after the performance finished) but also the piccolo, with the Falcon’s leit-motif. The public seemed to agree and quite possibly it was Maestro Bychkov & Co. that got the biggest cheers last night. Not being a Wagner fan I’ve not heard a louder opera performance so far2; at times I think it was on par with an amplified rock concert.

The singers more than matched the orchestra and that was also a brutal assault on my delicate ears. The acuti of a high dramatic soprano cutting through a 164 piece orchestra3 – well, you can imagine how it feels. Ouch. I’d like to see this from the floor as well, and experience how all the bodies between the stage and me would cushion the sound. However, there is no way I can see this twice in a season and still be able to function. I don’t know how the singers manage with the emotional heaviness. Points to them.

Since I rarely hear dramatic singers live (or on record) this was quite an experience. I know very little about the dramatic repertoire and indeed about what dramatic singers need to do, most of it from other Strauss works. This was educational about their challenges, as opposed to those of lyric singers. The mains all sounded very good, with mezzo Michaela Schuster and tenor Johan Botha as stand-outs for me on the basis of beauty of tone. Also Botha, about whose stage antics I joked earlier in the year, benefited from a role which didn’t require much physical stamina.

The libretto: you can’t talk about a Strauss/Hofmannstahl opera and say nothing about the libretto. I’ve a great admiration for Hofmannstahl’s work: it’s clever, funny (although not in this case), interesting and very different from your usual idea of libretto writing4. Although I’m not a fan of mythology, I do enjoy symbolism done this way. Arcane symbolism, perhaps. It lingers with you and works within you. But beyond all the striking scenes and the animal symbolism which was very faithfully adhered to by Guth, the subject is a reoccurring one for Strauss and Hof: a couple’s drama, with the woman as the prime mover. Two people looking deep inside themselves and finding love not only on a personal level, but love in general.

It was a very intense, moving evening. I really enjoyed this production, so I think I will go easier on Guth from now on.


  1.  One-Eyed Brother: Adrian Clarke | One-Armed Brother: Jeremy White | Hunchback Brother: Hubert Francis | Spirit Messenger: Ashley Holland | Voice of a Falcon: Anush Hovhannisyan | Guardian of the Threshold: Dušica Bijelic | Voice from Above: Catherine Carby | Apparition of a Youth: David Butt Philip | First Nightwatchman: Michel de Souza | Second Nightwatchman: Jihoon Kim | Third Nightwatchman: Adrian Clarke | Voice of Unborn Child: Ana James | Voice of Unborn Child: Kiandra Howarth | Voice of Unborn Child: Nadezhda Karyazina 
  2. Although Luisotti’s Don Giovanni was trying its darnest. Kidding ;-) 
  3. It was so big, they needed to close down the orchestra pit adjacent Stalls Circles in order to accommodate the whole thing. 
  4. It’s more descriptive and epic than straight-up lyrical, generally speaking it’s very visual. 
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About dehggial

opera lover with a predilection for Mozart and Baroque

Posted on March 21, 2014, in live performances, richard strauss and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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