The Royal Opera celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss with a new staging of Die Frau ohne Schatten, first seen at La Scala in 2012.
The main strength of Claus Guth’s production is to delineate the way in which the opera, like so many Teutonic and Nordic myths, takes place between the realms of nature, society and fantasy (in this instance, the spirit world) by actually overlapping the three. For example, the curtain opens to reveal a woman close to death in a hospital bed, with a doctor and nurse standing by looking helpless. All this points to our own mortal coil, but just a few seconds later we realise that the woman is actually the Empress and the two ‘clinicians’ the Messenger and Nurse from the spirit world.
Christian Schmidt’s set consists of one bold curve of mahogany that fuses nature, where the wood comes from, and society, where it is used for furnishings. This creates an arena for the action, and with a ‘screen’ appearing at the back of the curve we almost have one proscenium stage situated within another. When this in turn opens out to create a far greater area behind, it usually signifies a move from realm to another.
Although the staging is intelligent and generally effective, the one difficulty is that visually it can create a sterile area. In many ways, this appropriately portrays the mundaneness of the world of Barak and his Wife. It sometimes feels, however, as if the masked actors who portray the Empress in gazelle form, the falcon that attacked the Empress, and the black gazelle (the metaphorical shadow of the white) move within a vacuum that feels devoid of context. This is only, however, a problem in parts of Act I because Act II introduces a wider range of effects to sustain interest, and Act III feels far freer as the set opens out more.
Portraying the absence of a shadow on stage is not easy, and designer Olaf Winter successfully employs a variety of techniques to address the problem. For the most part lighting levels are kept low and come from angles that do not cast long shades. When, however, the Empress initially decides to find a shadow, huge ones of her and the Nurse appear as if highlighting the aspiration. The real coup, however, comes in Act II when, amidst a plethora of special effects, the act of lighting Barak’s Wife only from the waist upwards proves effective at creating no shadow. By placing winged creatures further upstage, their own images appearing huge and menacing, the contrast is completed.
Musically, the evening is exceptional. As the Empress Emily Magee reveals a soprano of both strength and lightness, the purity and precision in her phrasing exquisite. Johan Botha as the Emperor similarly brings power to his immensely rounded and beautiful tenor sound. Mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster’s voice is possessed of smoothness and suppleness as she revels in the role of the trickster Nurse. Johan Reuter as Barak reveals an exceptionally nuanced baritone voice, while, as his Wife, soprano Elena Pankratova proves thrilling in both her radiant upper and darker lower registers.
By the time one has added in some exquisite offstage singing, Semyon Bychkov’s sublime conducting of Strauss’s wondrous score, and an ending of immense visceral power, it should come as no surprise that this is an unforgettable night.
Die Frau ohne Schatten will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 from 5.45pm on 29 March 2014.