Die Frau ohne Schatten

If Frau ohne Schatten (from now on FroSch) belongs to the repertoire, we owe it to Karl Böhm. He was responsible for the first studio recording and he was the one who organized the team of artists who took the opera all over the world so that it became known by major audiences. Böhm’s dedication to this work certainly has to do with the fact that Strauss regarded it as his best operatic work. It certainly is the most complex and ambitious. As a matter of fact, the demands on singers and orchestra are almost impossible to be accomplished. Not only that – many of the stage instructions  are to these days impossible to be followed. To make things easier, live performances are almost invariably cut – although no two versions have the same cuts. Karajan’s performing edition includes the change of order of two scenes and some extra material composed to accomodate the alteration. Only three versions are complete – both Solti performances (although the live one has a shorter Melodram) and Sawallisch’s for EMI.

GIUSEPPE SINOPOLI, 1996
Deborah Voigt (The Empress), Sabine Hass (Dyer’s Wife), Hanna Schwarz (The Nurse), Ben Heppner (The Emperor), Franz Grundheber (Barak), Chor der Sächsischen Staatsoper Dresden, Staatskapelle Dresden, Giuseppe Sinopoli

Giuseppe Sinopoli had a strangely stern way with this score, both here and live at La Scala. Tempi are slower and the theatrical effects in the score are played without any sense of theatre. It seems that he was to almost entirely concentrated on vertical clarity. As a result, phrasing tends to lack forward movement and the overall structure sense is mostly left to  imagination. It is particularly weird that a live recording in the theatre is so undramatic, even if the Dresden orchestra is playing so beautifully. Teldec  is hardly to blame either, since it has excellent recorded sound. Deborah Voigt, although she copes heroically and effortlessly with what she has to sing, not only is unvaried as the Empress, but also her voice is unsuited to the part. Nothing suggest the crystaline spirit here. Sabine Hass, on the other hand, is an imaginative Färberin. Although her soprano is quite metallic, she sings very provocatively. Hanna Schwarz improved a lot her already very good Nurse from Sawallisch’s EMI recording. Here she is even stronger in declamation. As a result, the Färberin/Amme scene are invariably the most compelling in this recording. Ben Heppner is  an example of liquid and easy singing, but his Emperor is so phlegmatic that I would gladly exchange him for James King and some effortful top notes. Franz Grundheber is a reliable Barak.

WOLFGANG SAWALLISCH, 1992
Luana DeVol (The Empress), Janis Martin (Dyer’s Wife), Marjana Lipovsek (The Nurse), Peter Seiffert (The Emperor), Alan Titus (Barak), Jan-Hendrik Rootering (Spirit Messenger), Chor und Orcheter der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Wolfgang Sawallisch

It seems that Solti and Sawallisch were doomed to competition when it comes to FroSch. Both conductors have the only complete studio recordings and also the only official DVDs currently available. In a visit of the Bavarian State Opera to Japan, Sawallisch insisted about giving to a score so dear to him its Japanese première in the city of Nagoya’s newly open opera house. More important than this, as a tribute to his love for Japan, Sawallisch invited Kabuki actor Ennosuke Ichikawa to stage the opera, for truly illuminating results. The Kabukiza is famous for its exquisite stagings of mythic stories with amazing special effects, lavish sets and costumes and  highly stylized gestures, and the director showed particularly sensibility in order to adapt all this to Hofmannsthal’s intricate imagery. The cast relished the opportunity and one can see the soloists’ commitment to the directorial choices. If I had to be critical about something, this would be that Barak and his Wife did not seem to wake as much imagination in Ichikawa as the spirit’s world. In any case, in what regards singing, the spirits were indeed cast from strength. Luana DeVol has become famous (or infamous) for her powerful if abrasive singing in Wagnerian roles, as one can sample from her DVDs as Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung and as Ortrud in Lohengrin and one reads that she takes the part of the Empress with apprehension – soon dispelled by her unusually clean and poised singing of this role. It is not a beautiful voice, but here it is used with such Straussian suppleness that you cannot help being convinced. She offers also a strong case for the casting of a dramatic soprano, as demanded by the composer, when she is capable of flexibility, tonal shading and nuance. This is probably her best recorded performance. Although Janis Martin’s top notes are edgy, she is one of the most pleasant-toned Färberinen in the discography. Her voice is always feminine and flowing, even when she is tested by the high tessitura. It is a pity that she is rather dull in the interpretation department and clearly at a loss with the acting requirements in this production, a problem shared by  Alan Titus, who would later develop into a commendable Barak. Here he sings cleanly yet anonymously and does not inspire any particularly sense of spiritual nobility. Peter Seiffert is unusually dulcet-toned as the Emperor, but has to force his tone to cope with high-lying heroic passages. That does not prevent him from offering a most likable performance of this difficult role. Marjana Lipovsek is even better than in Salzburg, her voice in better shape and her performance more focused – and she gives some kabuki actors a run for their money in her mie-like grimaces. The Bavarian State Orchestra offers beautiful sounds throughout  (if not the tonal refulgence of the Vienna Philharmonic) and direct comparison with Solti’s live performance shows that the German conductor’s long experience with the score pays off in his stronger control of large structures, every little tiny piece falling into the right place in the most natural manner – one hardly notices how long this opera actually is. TDK’s recorded sound has less space than Decca’s in Salzburg – here voices are a bit more prominent, but you will still find the overall picture clearer due to Sawallisch’s sharper sense of structure.

GEORG SOLTI, 1992
Cheryl Studer (The Empress), Eva Marton (Dyer’s Wife), Marjana Lipovsek (The Nurse), Thomas Moser (The Emperor), Robert Hale (Barak), Bryn Terfel (Spirit Messenger), Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Georg Solti

When Solti decided to conduct this work live in Salzburg, his understanding of this difficult score seemed far sharper than one year before . The results are structurally more coherent and his phrasing far more spontaneous. Moreover, the Vienna Philharmonic is in splendid shape. The original idea was to repeat Julia Varady from his studio recordings in the role of Empress, but it did not turn out and Cheryl Studer was called to sing the role. Although she is slightly less at ease compared to the EMI performance, she still has no rivals in this role. The naturalness and floating quality of her soprano fit the Empress’s music extraordinarily. Eva Marton is not a natural Straussian – her voice suffers from excess of vibrato and can be unfocused, but she was in a healthy day and, from the interpretative point, she is a convincingly intense Färberin. Interpretation is also the strong point of Marjana Lipovsek. She is fascinating (especially watching the video), but the writing is a bit high for her voice. The role of the Emperor is a real stretch for Thomas Moser – even if he is an elegant singer with an appealing warm tenor, one cannot think of something else other than how difficult this part is. Robert Hale is a heroic if unstuble Barak who becomes quite tired towards the end of the opera. The secondary roles are wonderfully taken by people like Bryn Terfel and Andrea Rost. The recorded sound is excellent. Götz Friedrich’s production skates at the surface of the acknowledgedly confusing symbolism in Hofmannsthal’s libretto and Rolf Glittenberg’s rather abstract but aptly  grandiose sets are generally convincing (except for the tool shed were the Baraks are supposed to live), while Marianne Glittenberg’s costumes are particularly ugly.

GEORG SOLTI, 1991
Julia Varady (The Empress), Hildegard Behrens (Dyer’s Wife), Reinhild Runkel (The Nurse), Plácido Domingo (The Emperor), José van Dam (Barak), Albert Dohmen (Spirit Messenger), Wiener Philharmonik, Georg Solti

Whether it was a sensible idea to spend £1,000,000.00 in this recording, this is a difficult question. For that amount of money, one should expect a classic item in the discography, but I would rather say that it is the only complete recording with an entirely reliable cast, orchestra and conductor. It is true that Georg Solti had developed since his Wagnerian days into a more relaxed conductor and ensured that the Vienna Philharmonic play beautifully and transparently throughout, but the results are miles away from being expressive as Böhm 55, exciting as Karajan 64 or magic as Sawallisch’s studio recording. It is often quite illuminating when you listen to highlights, but the whole performance seems to wear its effect. Decca tried to gave a big sound for a big score, but a bit more intimacy would have worked for some scenes. I frankly dislike the halo around Hildegard Behrens’s voice. Maybe she was just placed far from the microphone, but one could imagine she was tracked in, for the booklet says that the producers had to “wait for” her in order to complete the cast. As usual with Solti, this is an international cast and, this time, I am afraid that they really do not develop into a team. Julia Varady learnt the part for this recording and never sang it again. Not surprisingly, that never shows in her confident singing, which is dramatically engaged and virtuosistic, although she has her sour moments. Behrens is a bright-tone and softer-centered Färberin, but somehow unconvincing in her unsharp characterization and lack of substance in the middle register. Reinhild Runkel has an aptly eerie voice for the Amme. I saw her live in this part and she certainly has more than enough power and range to deal with it and her articulation of the text is exemplary. Plácido Domingo was the “selling” feature of the recording and also learned the role for the recording never to sing it again. Pity, for it is his best recording in a German opera ever commited to disc. Straussian’s high-lying flowing phrasing tests his German less than Wagnerian declamation and he is also in glorious voice. I am sure Strauss himself  would have to give a second thought about his boutade about tenors and vocal disease. José van Dam’s Barak is beautifully  and stylishly sung but emotionally tame. The minor roles are superbly taken – Albert Dohmen is a forceful Spirit Messeenger and Sumi Jo is so magnetic as the Voice of the Falcon that the role really gain a new dimension.

WOLFGANG SAWALLISCH, 1988
Cheryl Studer (The Empress), Ute Vinzing (Dyer’s Wife), Hanna Schwarz (The Nurse), René Kollo (The Emperor), Alfred Muff (Barak), Andreas Schmidt (Spirit Messenger), Chor und Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Wolfgang Sawallisch

Until 1988, FroSch did not have a complete recording. Decca decided to advertise the fact that they were going to make it for the first time. However, EMI was faster and took profit of the Bavarian Opera production to make their recording. There was Sawallisch, who had a long experience with the work on stage, and the lovely Straussian orchestra, the Bayerische Rundfunk, and the results are admirable. In EMI’s crystal clear recorded sound, one can listen to music making that is successful in every sense: vertical and horizontal clarity, beauty of tone, well-judged tempi, you name it!, it’s here. This is probably Sawallisch’s most accomplished operatic recording – one made with the serious purpose of revealing all the beauty in Strauss’s score. If someone ever was perfect in a role, this was Cheryl Studer as the Empress. This performance alone would have made her a diva. She has a good partner in Hanna Schwarz, who turned the fact of being light voiced into an advantage, bringing quick articulation for the role and clean vocal production. The rest of the cast, alas, is not in the same level. René Kollo has some moments as the Emperor, but is gritty most of the time. Ute Vinzig is the kind of soprano that became characteristic of the part of the Färberin – powerful voice, ugly tone and awkward phrasing. Alfred Muff is a reliable if unimaginative Barak.

KARL BÖHM, 1977
Leonie Rysanek (The Empress), Birgit Nilsson (Dyer’s Wife), Ruth Hesse (The Nurse), James King (The Emperor), Walter Berry (Barak), Chor der Wiener Staatsoper, Wiener Philharmoniker, Karl Böhm

Karl Böhm’s second official studio find him not entirely at the top of his game. His approach tends to be more careful in the more complex moment and the orchestra is not as clearly recorded as such a sophisticated score demands. Fortunately, this does not tamper with sense of theatre, and one can feel the complete interpretative symbiosis between the conductor and his musicians. The Frosch team is here complete – only Birgit Nilsson finally took the place of Christa Ludwig. Actually, this was the last role the Swedish soprano added to her repertoire. Leonie Rysanek was the main member of the team (she actually was responsible for having Nilsson on board). For a long while, the role of the Empress “belonged” to her. It was HER role and she gave herself entirely to it. Although she had lost her in alts, Rysanek’s voice sounds actually firmer here than in 55. However, she had developed some distracting mannerisms, which finally are compensated by her imagination and sense of theatre. Birgit Nilsson’s voice had become a bit hard by 1977 and she uses it to focus on the shrewish aspects of her Färberin. Although one might miss the sensuousness, the effortlessness of Nilsson’s bright, forceful soprano is unforgettable. James King was past his best too and is not entirely comfortable with his high notes. The sheer energy with which he invests the part remains untouched and, once you get used to King’s performance, you may find everyone else rather bland as the Emperor. Walter Berry seems a bit careless and unsubtle here, although it is still a voice that works really well in this part. Finally, Ruth Hesse is a vivid Nurse, even if the voice lacks some weight and variety. The recorded sound is rather metallic and balance is unhelpful to gentler sounding instruments and definitely favorable to singers.

KARL BÖHM, 1974
Leonie Rysanek (The Empress), Christa Ludwig (Dyer’s Wife), Ruth Hesse (The Nurse), James King (The Emperor), Walter Berrt (Barak), Martin Egel (Spirit Messenger), Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, Karl Böhm

Karl Böhm’s 1974 performance in the Vienna State Opera still features his original team of singers. Böhm was at his most inspired and offers the perfect symbiosis between music and theatre. Even if the 1977 DG is stereo, the 1974 is probably the  the one to keep. Christa Ludwig only reinforces her supremacy in the role. The performance is entirely different from the Karajan 10 years before. Here, the voice is darker and rounder and the character is sexier and naughtier. Walter Berry is also in very good shape and Ruth Hesse is in slightly fresher voice.

KARL BÖHM, 1966
Leonie Rysanek (The Empress), Christa Ludwig (Dyer’s Wife), Irene Dalis (The Nurse), James King (The Emperor), Walter Berry (Barak), William Dooley (Spirit Messenger), Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Karl Böhm

HERBERT VON KARAJAN, 1964
Leonie Rysanek (The Empress), Christa Luudwig (Dyer’s Wife), Grace Hoffmann (The Nurse), Jess Thomas (The Emperor), Walter Berry (Barak), Walter Kreppel (Spirit Messenger), Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, Herbert von Karajan

In spite of mono recording, Karajan’s performance has the highest level of theatrical feeling and his conducting has the right touch of lightness and forward movement, not to mention the beautiful orchestral playing from the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. Moreover, considering it is a broadcast, the level of clarity is amazing – you can hear some details more easily than in many a studio recording, such as the glass harmonica when the Empress gets her shadow, among many other niceties. Although it is really really sad that there are all those cuts, Karajan offers here one of the most impressive Straussian performances in recordings – his understanding of the work’s structure, particularly how to highlight the Hauptstimme while keeping perfectly clear polyphonic perspectives, is unsurpassed. No Straussian would dare to call himself so without this miraculous performance – probably the best night at the opera of one’s life. Leonie Rysanek’s voice rarely sounded so beautiful in recordings as here. There is some under the note attack, but the radiance of her soaring top register is entirely preserved here, not to mention that she does not miss one dramatic point. Christa Ludwig brings allure to the Färberin. As a matter of fact, the beauty and sensuousness of her singing place her above any competition. She was also part of the Böhm team for a while and shows here her fine understanding of the role. The development of the character is beautifully conveyed and even the sound of her voice changes during the opera to express that. It is particularly fortunate that Ludwig had such an accomplished partner in the role of the Nurse. Grace Hoffman finds no difficulty is this challenging role: her mezzo is extremely appealing and she is a subtle and intelligent performer, probably a favourite in this role. Also, Walter Berry was in rich, easy voice and is extremely congenial. It is a pity that Jess Thomas’s top notes were a bit strained that evening- his voice is warmer than in Keilberth’s recording, but his singing is too often edgy. Fritz Wunderlich was not in top form either as the Erscheinung des Jünglings, but Lucia Popp is very nice in a series of small roles. Once again – the edition is weird (beside the cuts there is a change of the order of the scenes in act II – the falcon’s house goes straight to the Empress’ Nightmare and scenes III and V in Barak’s house become one big scene).

HERBERT VON KARAJAN, 1964
Gundula Janowitz (The Empress), Gladys Kuchta (Dyer’s Wife), Grace Hoffman (The Nurse), Jess Thomas (The Emperor), Otto Wiener (Barak), Walter Kreppel (Spirit Messenger), Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, Herbert von Karajan

This recording Karajan was made during dress rehearsal (there is an audience that does not make any noise but applauds in the end of each act) and features the same peculiar edition found above and also some members of the cast. Karajan’s structural understanding and horizontal clarity (not to mention the beautiful orchestral sound perspectives) are all there, but the performance lacks the polish and excitement in the performance available on DG. The recorded sound, although more natural than in the other broadcast, is unclear and favours some instruments (such as brass) instead of other (such as violins). It is far from unpleasant, but it harms vertical clarity sometimes and there could be a bit more immediacy too. To many collectors, the main interest in this set is Gundula Janowitz’s only experience with the role of the Empress, a performance that only adds to her reputation as a Straussian, although she was only 27 and did it only because Karajan persuaded her to accept it. She is in splendid voice and faces the heavy demands on her voice with fearlessness and poise. The very sound of her voice, crystalline and etheral, is the sound image of her role and the cleaness of her phrasing is a delight to the ears. Her top register is also in excellent shape and she is the most distinguished member of this cast. Gladys Kuchta is also an interesting Färberin, offering a warm dramatic soprano with some rounded top notes and some dramatic imagination. The voice is not intrinsically beautiful and her articulation could be clearer sometimes. Grace Hoffman is again a model of vocal ease in the role of the Amme, but she is less alert than in the other recording. It is also a pity that Jess Thomas is even less at ease too. Otto Wiener shows imagination as Barak, but the voice is lackadaisical and he ignores the meaning of legato. The bonus tracks are precious, because you’ll find here Böhm’s 1974 Vienna performance in excellent sound.

JOSEF KEILBERTH, 1963
Ingrid Bjoner (The Empress), Inge Borkh (Dyer’s Wife), Martha Mödl (The Nurse), Jess Thomas (The Emperor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Barak), Hans Hotter (Spirit Messenger), Chor und Orchester der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Josef Keilberth

Josef Keilberth’s recording was made in one evening from a series of performances in the re-opening of the Bavarian State Opera.  In spite of the historic significance of these performances, the orchestra was not in its best shape and Keilberth proves to be rather kapellmeisterlich, not to mention that the score is heavily cut. The main interest here is the cast, which gathers some compelling singers. First of all, it is a pleasure to hear the seriously neglected Ingrid Bjoner as the Empress. Her voice has a floating purity rare in dramatic sopranos. It is taylor-made for the role and she sings with musicianship and good taste. Inge Borkh is one of the best Färberinen on records – she is a scornful woman with an aggressive sensuality and, although the voice is not intrinsically beautiful, it is consistently exciting with its powerful top notes. Jess Thomas was in exciting and forceful voice, although he has his raw moments. All in all, it is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau who steals the show with the most humane Barak in the discography. He is also in outstandingly good voice. In the minus side, there is a throaty spirit messenger in Hans Hotter and a infuriating Nurse from Martha Mödl. The voice is poorly focused and she is in such difficulty to sing top notes that she even resorts to transposing them down. The recorded sound could have better balance. Do not expect absolute clarity here.

KARL BÖHM, 1955
Leonie Rysanek (The Empress), Christel Golz (Dyer’s Wife), Elisabeth Höngen (The Nurse), Hans Hopf (The Emperor), Paul Schöffler (Barak), Kurt Böhme (Spirit Messenger), Chor der Wiener Staatsoper, Wiener Philharmoniker, Karl Böhm

Following performances in the Vienna State Opera, Karl Böhm tried to move the president of Decca to record the opera. However, the enterprise was risky and the the offer was declined. As the conductor proposed that no fees should be paid and the recording company was finally convinced. Not even the heating had been left on in the studio, so everybody had to play and sing in their winter coats. Tape also had to be saved, so each act was practically recorded without interruption. Not only does that make the whole venture more cherishable, but might serve as an explanation for the level of concentration and authenticity obtained here, for this is arguably the most expressive performance in this discography and it is almost miraculous that the early stereo sound is so clear and has such focused a sound image. Böhm’s conducting is more than theatrical: it makes each one of Strauss’s orchestral effects “speak”. Some moments, such as the interlude before the Emperor’s scene at the falconry, where you can clearly hear the “flapping” of falcon’s wing, are even today unsurpassed. Leonie Rysanek’s voice is  here fresh and creamy, although one notices that the top notes don’t have the expansion and floating quality they had live. Christel Golz did not have a beautiful voice, but her dramatic soprano works really well for the Dyer’s Wife and she is particularly poignant in moments such as Dritthalb Jahre bin ich dein Weib. Elisabeth Höngen is very fluent as the Nurse (she was a favourite of Böhm’s), Hans Hopf, in spite of some awkward phrasing, is in heroic voice for the Emperor and Paul Schöffler is a sensitive Barak. No real fan on this opera could part with this recording.