Richard Strauss: Die Frau Ohne Schatten [Salzburg Festival] Blu-ray Review
- Aspect Ratio: 1.77:1
- Video Codec: AVC/MPEG-4
- Resolution: 1080i/60
- Audio Codec: PCM 2.0, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
- Subtitles: Italian, English, French, German, Spanish
- Region: ABC (Region-Free)
- Rating: Not Rated
- Discs: 1 (1 x Blu-ray)
- Studio: Opus Arte
- Blu-ray Release Date: May 29, 2012
- List Price: $29.99
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(All Blu-rayDefinition.com screen captures are lightly compressed with lossy JPEG at 100% quality setting and are meant as a general representation of the content. They do not fully reveal the capabilities of the Blu-ray format)
Richard Strauss specialized in operas about mythological subjects, such as Daphne, Die Liebe der Danae, and Die Aegyptische Helena. In this vein, Die Frau Ohne Schatten (The Woman without Shadow) is an allegory concerning a woman (Empress) whose husband has been condemned to death until she bears a child. For this, as the Empress is not a real human being, she must enter the world of the humans and take her “shadow,” i.e., fertility, from a mortal woman. While the opera wends its way through a rather complex plot with numerous twists, the Empress is eventually granted her “shadow,” rather than having to steal it from an earthly woman, in this case Barak the dyer’s wife, thus saving the Emperor from being turned into stone.
The 2011Salzburg Festival performance has a lot of the elements for success. The cast that includes noted Strauss and Wagnerian singers, tenor Stephen Gould (Emperor), and soprano Anne Schamnewilms (Empress), accompanied by the wonderful character singer, mezzosoprano Michaela Schuster (Nurse), makes for a great start. Things get even better when the spirit characters enter the earth’s atmosphere and we meet baritone Wolfgang Koch (Barak) and soprano Evelyn Herlitzius (Barak’s wife). The Wiener Philharmoniker, augmented by a sizeable brass section, under Christian Thielemann’s baton provide the substantial and necessary orchestral collaboration.
Now comes the not so good news. The Christof Loy staging sets the action in a recording studio replete with chairs and music stands. The soloists are frequently at these stands and apparently sight-reading their parts rather than interacting as would be the case of a staged work. There is some “staged” action in the second Act with the studio crew appearing as unborn children in name if not in dress. Having the singers in standard dress with sparse sets is the same miscalculation that the Metropolitan Opera made three years ago when Mary Zimmerman set Bellini’s La Somnambula as a workshop rehearsal and run through of the actual opera. Some works can survive this regie-theatre treatment. Unfortunately Die Frau Ohne Schatten is not one of these works, and the magic of the exotic theater piece as intended is quite simply missing in action.
Opus Arte continues to issue some of the best HD discs out there. This one is no exception. Unfortunately, without real sets, costumes or atmosphere, the videography is largely wasted in this mock-up of Vienna’s legendary Sofiensaal where many famous recordings (including one of this opera) were made. To compensate for the nearly empty stage, there are more than the usual number of close ups, some alarmingly so, revealing both the make up cracks and facial flaws of the singers. There is also occasional softness to some of the images which might have been due to differences in cameras used as this effect is principally noted in the shots of the orchestra and conductor.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack does full justice to this massive score, Wagnerian in scale, as were a number of Strauss’s other operas. A small amount of ambience is present, enough to create a sense of the large hall at Salzburg. The 2.0 PCM version is satisfactory but noticeably flat in its presentation of sound stage.
We get a 25-minute documentary of Christian Thielemann’s rehearsal of the work showing how he and the cast made the pieces fit for this performance. To everyone’s credit, the singers and orchestral players did their level best to compensate for odd directorial decisions for what actually happens on stage. A cast gallery is also provided.
The Definitive Word
In many respects, Die Frau Ohne Schatten, might be considered the pinnacle of Strauss’s collaboration with librettist Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, given the ambitious and huge scoring and dense vocal text. It is infrequently mounted today due to the considerable demands for casting, staging and the 164 piece (!) orchestra in the original score. Although Der Rosenkavalier and Salome are more popular works, Die Frau has considerably more depth and offers more on repeated hearings than its musical siblings. There have been a couple of DVD releases with reasonably good casts and potent conductors like Georg Solti and Wolfgang Sawallisch.
The lineup of this BD premiere issue may not have the name recognition of its video predecessors, but the vocalism is no worse than competent, and some, particularly the female principals, better than most. More importantly, Thielemann’s musical direction is the best that I have heard in recent memory. If this were simply a sound recording, the Loy staging concept would be irrelevant, but as a visual experience, it nearly sinks the ship for me, stripping away the otherworldly nature of this masterpiece. At final curtain, when the directing team appears on stage, a loud chorus of boos seemed to echo my assessment of their efforts. So, if you are seeking a high-def recording of this opera, and can abide the significant reservations noted above, this is the only one out there, and will probably be without competition for the foreseeable future.
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