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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Die Frau ohne Schatten - opera in three acts (1917)
The Emperor - Avgust Amonov (tenor)
The Empress - Mlada Khudoley (soprano)
Barak - Edem Umerov (baritone)
Barak’s Wife - Olga Sergeyeva (soprano)
The Nurse - Olga Savova (mezzo)
Spirit Messenger - Evgeny Ulanov (baritone)
Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus/Valery Gergiev
Jonathan Kent (stage director)
Henning Kasten (film director)
rec. live, Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, December 2011
Region Code: 0; NTSC; Aspect Ratio 16:9; PCM Stereo, 5.1 Dolby Digital, DTS 5.1
Subtitles: Russian, English, Spanish, German (as sung), French
MARIINSKY MAR0543 [136:19 + 67:13]

Die Frau ohne Schatten is one of those unusual operas that is firmly part of the repertoire but comes around so rarely that a staging still feels like a treat. This Mariinsky production has already visited British shores: Gergiev brought it to the 2011 Edinburgh International Festival with the same cast. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that it was the work’s Scottish premiere, and I was lucky enough to get a ticket, so it’s fascinating to see how it has transferred across to film.
Jonathan Kent’s production is safe and sumptuous, eschewing the sort of self-conscious cleverness that marred Christof Loy’s 2011 production for the Salzburg Festival. Its greatest strength is to point up the contrast between the higher magical plane of the Emperor and the grimy environment of the humans. To do this he makes frequent, intelligent use of video projections and a distinctive colour scheme. The opening scene, for example, contains lots of reds and whites, and the motifs on the Emperor’s costume and palace are firmly reminiscent of the Far East, especially the use of oriental dragons. In contrast to this, Barak’s laundrette is painfully naturalistic, down to the mould on the walls, the strip lighting and the overcrowded kitchen. It’s powerfully effective, showing first of all how much of a sacrifice the Empress makes in descending to the world of men. Secondly we witness the grim way of life that Barak and his wife are subject to and, by extension, how tempting is the offer for her to escape from it.
Kent embraces the magical elements of the story. We see the falcon descending from above the stage and watch the Spirit Messenger disappear above the proscenium. The Emperor’s hunting horses are seen during his scene in Act 2. Much of the magic is achieved through video projection, most notably through his use of a gauze curtain for the supernatural moments. This is at its most effective for the fire and flood that engulf Barak’s house at the end of the second act. It allows all the effects of the final act to come to life, including the boat on the lake and the golden fountain. This comes at a price, though. I can’t guarantee that this isn’t primarily a psychological perception on my part, but I’m pretty sure that the singing sounds slightly muffled when it comes from behind a gauze curtain. I noticed it in the theatre - and found it pretty maddening, despite the visual gains - and I picked it up here too. Elsewhere, though, the video is used to suggest things like the unborn children in the first act - during the cooking of the fish. It gives you something pretty spectacular to watch during the scene changes. He somewhat fluffs the Emperor’s turning to stone, though, and in the third act the Emperor simply has to step out of a massive fibreglass blob, a disappointing compromise in the light of the production’s other visual achievements.
Gergiev was able to cast pretty much the entire opera from his own Mariinsky ensemble. When it came to Edinburgh it was double-cast - pause for a moment to consider how miraculous a company achievement that is in this day and age - so that I heard on the stage only a few of the singers who feature on the DVD. One of those was Avgust Amonov who sounded pretty dreadful in the theatre but it must have been an off night because on the DVD he sounds confident and ardent. He is prone to a few moments of heldentenor barking and you won’t find anything like the beautiful sounds of Domingo (for Solti on Decca) or Heppner (for Sinopoli on Teldec). He is mostly inside the tessitura and makes a good fist of the role.
The strongest aspects of the casting, however, are the two dramatic sopranos, who are both excellent. Mlada Khudoley, in particular, is a marvellous Empress, worthy to set alongside the best of them. She sings the demanding role without seeming to break a sweat, coasting through every passage with lyricism and ardour, and really re-awakening me to what a brilliant role this is. Olga Sergeeva is excellent too, but in a more waspish, slightly hard-edged way. She is brilliantly brittle in the first two acts, and you always feel she is pretty close to biting Barak’s head off. She stays on just the right side of shrillness and warms her tone beautifully for the more penitential, loving persona of the final act.
Edem Umerov sings Barak’s music very beautifully, nowhere more so than in the great lyrical outpouring of love at the start of the third act. Elsewhere he comes across as a lovable Everyman, and he is very sympathetic during the separation sequence at the end of the first act. I had my doubts about Olga Savova’s Nurse, but she gets into the part very convincingly, and she acts and sings with a slightly malevolent edge. The rest of the cast is also very good. Evgeny Ulanov’s Spirit Messenger is grandiose and important, and there is a great trio of brothers, though Tatiana Kravtsova’s Falcon always seems to attack from below the note.
The best musical performance comes from the orchestra, however, who play this kaleidoscopic score sensationally. The strings are warm and appealing, especially in the transition to the Emperor’s scene in Act 2. The brass are stupendously authoritative, granting real grandeur and bite to the judgement scenes. They are helped in this by excellent DTS 5.1 sound which, perhaps, favours the orchestra a tiny bit over the singers. Still, the opening brass and drum thuds for Keikobad’s theme really took me aback, and the sound quality didn’t let up for the whole performance. The magical elements are conveyed very well, such as the orchestra sparkle for the unborn children in Act 1 or the appearance of the servants that the Nurse conjures up to tempt Barak’s wife. You will love the sound of the golden fountain in the third act. The offstage elements, so important in this work, are mostly handled very well too. The brass who announce the judgement scene at the end of Act 2 are placed just far enough away to make them distant yet clear at the same time. The many offstage choruses are very effective, most notably the unborn children in the first act and, especially, at the end of the final scene. The only mistake comes for the magical chorus of the watchmen at the end of Act 1, so spine-tinglingly beautiful in the theatre; here it sounds too remote so that it is almost drowned out. Supervising the whole thing, Gergiev seems to be in his element, and he enjoys getting his teeth into the very rewarding challenges of Strauss’s score, which remains a thing to marvel at. There are plenty of the usual cuts, most notably in the third act, but it keeps the dramatic pace going so it didn’t bother me: they are much more justifiable in a live performance than on, say, a studio recording, anyway.
My opinion of Die Frau ohne Schatten tends to swing between two poles. At times I think it’s Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s finest collaboration, a musical and spiritual masterpiece and one of the pinnacles of twentieth century opera; at others it strikes me as the indulgent, self-important pretension of two men who were too carried away by their own cleverness. Perhaps it is the tension between these two poles that gives the work its dynamism. It’s hard to deny that Strauss pulled off something pretty special in what is probably the most ambitious of his operatic scores. If you’re looking for a DVD then this one sits very nicely alongside Solti’s 1992 performance from Salzburg, a classic with an outstanding cast. However, if it’s the music alone that you’re after then you still won’t be able to beat Solti’s studio recording for Decca - the most expensive opera recording ever made, and worth every penny. This is closely followed by Böhm’s 1977 recording from Vienna, or Sinopoli’s much underrated version from Dresden.
Picture and sound quality are both very good, incidentally, but in line with the Mariinsky’s other DVD releases there are no extra features.
Simon Thompson