Having attended the Royal Opera’s Die Frau ohne Schatten twice, on Sunday, 23 March and Saturday, 29 March, I’m still at something of a loss to lay out my thoughts. I was captivated by it – Claus Guth’s production, the score and the performance of it – and still find myself going back to reflect on elements of the staging, and calling to mind snippets of the gorgeous orchestral swell of the score.
The dream-sequence imagery was beautifully realised in the muted tones of the wood-surrounded set. Characters in animal heads – gazelle and falcon chief amongst them – moved in and out of the smoothly shifting scenes. Lighting was evocative, with (ironically, perhaps) dramatic shadows, including for the Empress. This is not an easy or very consistent story to tell, but somehow, if elements didn’t make sense, it didn’t matter: it was just more to chew on and interpret. It wore its intellectualism lightly, in part because it was so well executed. The gentle return of the Empress to her sanatorium bed, so that at the closing bars of the opera she could awake from the ‘therapeutic’ dream we had just shared with her, was magical – and the presence of the Nurse in this sanatorium room, more benign but still ambiguously so, was a wonderfully piquant closing image.
The bounteous joys of the score were realised to stunning effect under Semyon Bychkov’s baton, the orchestra thrilling in climax and beautiful in the more delicate passages, which in turn came across as far more the ‘beating heart’ of a score that is more often known for the scale of its forces.
The cast were amazing from start to finish – and the concave sets quite singer-friendly, I suspect, for when things got loud in the pit. Michaela Schuster, as the Nurse, guided the proceedings with a lively, vamping stage presence and a gorgeous, rich mezzo. Of all things she’s done at Covent Garden – Venus, Klytemnestra, Herodias amongst them – this was the finest. As the Emperor, Johan Botha rang out heroically. Emily Magee was provided with more opportunity to stretch out emotionally, and with more vocal power than I had expected when I saw that she had been cast in the role. Her ‘trial’ scene was particularly intense after her long evening on stage, as she hurled out those spoken words ‘Ich will nicht!’.
The production’s great success, for me, was foregrounding the anguished relationship between Elena Pankratova’s Dyer’s Wife and the Barak of Johan Reuter. Both singers movingly conveyed the pain of their relationship, rendered more tortuously complex than I recall it appearing when I last saw this piece. Reuter’s tragic, lonely monologues made me want to see a Phillip II in Don Carlo from him. Stepping into an ensemble of this quality, all those in the many smaller roles made notable contributions – a healthy number drawn from the Jette Parker Young Artists.
It’s a while since I came out of the opera house so swept away by something. This was a glorious marriage of a complex, imperfect but fundamentally humane work; a stunning performance; and a production that invited you to think, rather than beat you over the head with its ideas. Strauss’s enigmatic masterpiece was a wonderful choice to add to the 2014 anniversary year, and here’s hoping it’ll be back soon.