Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten review I Andrew Clements's classical album of the week

Gould/Nylund/Koch/Stemme/Herlitzius/Wiener Staatsoper/Thielemann
(Orfeo, three CDs)
Strauss’s fairytale epic is full of magnificent detail in the hands of Christian Thielemann, while Camilla Nylund’s Empress is supple and intense

Die Frau ohne Schatten, The Woman Without a Shadow, may be the piece that marks out the real Richard Strauss fans from the mere admirers. To fully paid-up Straussians, his longest stage work is the summit of his achievements as an opera composer, a score of sumptuous invention married to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal of satisfying intricacy, while to non-believers it’s the most overblown and overlong of fairytale operas, a concoction of faux orientalism that’s hopelessly overloaded with symbolism. The magnificence of much of the score is undeniable, even if in the end it’s a work that after three-and-a-half hours of music sometimes fails to repay the investment by audiences and, especially, by singers whose vocal resources are pushed to the limit by the demands Strauss makes of them.

Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten album art work
Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten album art work Photograph: PR Handout

But if any conductor today can make a convincing musical and dramatic case for Frau ohne Schatten then it’s Christian Thielemann, for whom Strauss has long been one of the holy trinity of composers, alongside Beethoven and Wagner, on whom he anchors his repertory. In 2019, the Vienna State Opera marked its own 150th anniversary and the work’s centenary there with a new production, for which Thielemann conducted a cast that’s just about as good as could be assembled for the opera today.

Taken from a performance last May, the Orfeo recording clearly conveys the excitement of the occasion. Thielemann’s handling of the score is unreservedly magnificent; he conveys its teeming detail and dramatic sweep in a way that almost manages to disguise its more prolix moments, while ensuring as far as possible that the singers can cut through the tumultuous scoring (for more than 160 players). Stephen Gould brings a heldentenor’s heft to the role of Emperor, while Camilla Nylund’s Empress combines silvery suppleness in the early scenes with real dramatic intensity in the final act. Wolfgang Koch’s Barak may seem a bit overwhelmed by Nina Stemme’s performance as his wife, but that’s no shame, for Stemme, steely and passionate, dominates every scene in which she is heard.

Perhaps the only disappointment is Evelyn Herlitzius’s Nurse; there’s no mistaking her dramatic involvement, at every moment, but it’s a role that Strauss intended for a mezzo rather than a soprano, and Herlitzius does sometimes seems a bit underpowered in the lower-register passages. But that’s a minor complaint in an outstanding account of one of the most demanding operas in the canon. Even though there’s no libretto with the discs and the synopsis, Hofmannsthal’s wordy original isn’t entirely helpful either: this is arguably the most satisfying version now available.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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