Richard Strauss’s “last romantic opera,” as he called Die Frau Ohne Schatten, is and has always been a problem child. Strauss imagined it as a pendant to Mozart’s Zauberflöte in the same way that his Rosenkavalier related to Nozze di Figaro. He started composition in 1911, and it was essentially finished by 1915.  With the world at war, the premiere was postponed until October 1919.

In spite of enjoying both Maria Jeritza and Lotte Lehmann in the cast(!) critics found the piece overly complicated and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto too heavy in its symbolism. The public was simply unenthusiastic. The work is scored for 164 players and a full-scale production can strain the resources of even the largest opera house. The Salzburg Festival certainly has the means to do this opus justice and whether or not they’ve succeeded in this instance (recorded in the summer of 2011) depends on your reaction to the stage production. 

Christof Loy, in charge of Regie for this Opus Arte release, was inspired by the story of the first complete recording made by Decca in 1955 and conducted by Karl Böhm. Legend has it the maestro coerced the then stars of the Vienna State Opera to record in the dead of winter, in an unheated venue, just for sheer love of the work and with no monetary compensation.

So, completely eschewing Strauss’ South Sea island fantasyland the curtain pulls back to reveal designer Johannes Leiacker’s stunningly detailed replica of the Vienna Sofiensaal. The familiar risers and numbered stage floor, the upper level control room, the wait staff, the recording floor producer, the surrounding hallways and entrances that any chronic opera fan has seen in countless books and programs and documentaries over the years.

Loy plays it fairly straight for the first half of the opera. It’s easy to recognize the tentative soprano singing the Empress (who, apparently, hasn’t recorded much and doesn’t know her colleagues all that well), the tenor Emperor (who sweeps in with his manager, sings, and leaves), the married couple playing the Dyer and his wife who are having a bit of a row (shades of Walter Berry and Christa Ludwig) and the floor producer who keeps repositioning the singers and leading them about by their music stands for the sake of the microphone.

Then, around the time of Empress’s dream, when I was starting to think this concept had pretty much played itself out, Loy starts swinging wide with his ideas and, not wanting to spoil anything, I think it works extremely well in the context of the staging and in the psychology that inspires the opera’s plot.  The solution for the final scene was a complete surprise and is an extraordinarily sentimental choice for this director. Did someone say ”schmaltz”? Mind you, the whole thing makes a complete mockery of the synopsis in the program booklet but, no matter. I loved it.

The absolutely gorgeous costumes are by Ursula Renzenbrink, who really captures the period well, flatters everyone involved, and makes some subtle distinctions among the singers about class and social status just by the cut and style of their winter coats. Clever!

The cast is dominated, in all the best ways, by the Nurse of Michaela Schuster. It’s a perfect voice for the role, she’s apparently tireless, her word-pointing is superb and she’s got a stunning chest register when she deigns to dip deep. In a part that calls for precious little subtlety she reaches levels of malevolence usually reserved for Central American dictators. There’s a magnificent close up as the curtain falls on Act II where the camera captures her in what can only be described as orgasmic malice. She’s also got a hilarious sight gag in the finale that shouldn’t be missed.

The Dyer and his Wife are played by baritone Wolfgang Koch and soprano Evelyn Herlitzius and they make an excellent pair. She’s nagging and unfortunate and he’s just a big softy. Their interplay on the recording platform as a married couple is just as frustrating and touching in equal measure as it would be if they were costumed for a traditional production, maybe even more so. He’s got a big round baritone that doesn’t suffer from any audibility problems. She’s a former Bayreuth Brunnhilde, more than a few years back, and her voice has the right tang for the role. She starts the evening a mite too shrewish for me in both voice and characterization but it makes her ultimate transformation all the more enjoyable.

Stephen Gould as the Emperor does what he can with a role that no tenor should take on without danger money.  He’s a big, burly man with a voice to match although its baritonal weight forces him to manage the highest notes above the staff with a straight tone. It’s not necessarily unpleasant but he gets there almost all the time. He sings the other 98% of the role beautifully which is rare in itself. He’s not much of an actor I’m afraid but, then of course, he could just be playing a singer who’s not much of an actor. He does move well for a man his size and he’s got the bearing of the character which is rarer still.

Apparently I missed the puff of white smoke that went up the chimney at the Festspielhaus when Anne Schwanewilms sang her first lines as the Empress. Holy Mother of Lisa Della Casa where has this woman been?  I looked up her website and she’s been singing away for more than a decade. Covent Garden, La Scala, Chicago Lyric, Glyndebourne. Lots of Strauss, a little Mozart, the jungendlich Wagner roles, a few recordings and a surprisingly small repertoire. This was her role debut as the Empress and she is the schnitzel.  Her glorious soprano boasts a clear, almost glassy quality on the top that’s sheer magic every time she opens her mouth. Think Gundula Janowitz’s big sister.

Even more importantly she has an ease in her production that’s rare and doesn’t oversing. A little reserved, perhaps, but we like that in our Strauss sopranos, don’t we?  She’s particularly compelling in the spoken trial scene of Act III. The production makes her an outsider in these surroundings so she’s on the cool side dramatically but you couldn’t hope for better vocally.

All the supporting roles are well-filled and the chorus, adults and children, do extremely well. Special mention should be made for the uncommonly good Voice of the Falcon in Rachel Frenkel. For once I didn’t listen to this role without looking around for a big fly-swatter.

The real star of the evening is conductor Christian Thielemann. The poor guy has to wade into the pit and ford his way to the podium it’s so packed with players. From the first bars you know it’s going to be a masterful reading. I can’t begin to comprehend how he gets the transparency he does in some of the larger climaxes when all you should be hearing is noise and you’re able to pick out instruments instead. In one of the shots of the orchestra between the final set change I was actually taken aback at the amount of physical effort everyone was displaying. The audience screams and shouts every time the curtain comes down and the pounding on the floor at his solo call is almost deafening.

The score is performed uncut and it runs over three and a half hours. Picture on the Blu-ray disc is crisp and the DTS HD 5-point Master Audio is stunningly pure. Despite, or because of, its director’s iconoclastic approach this performance takes pride of place over all the previous video releases and, for that matter, some of the recordings in the catalog.