Die Frau ohne Schatten in Linz

In all but the major international opera houses, there must be some hesitancy before mounting performances of Die Frau ohne Schatten. The work by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal is long, complex and requires top class singers. Above all, it needs a conductor and orchestra capable of meeting the demands of a score which ranges from serene lyricism through magical nature-painting to earthy aggression. Happily at Linz the Bruckner Orchestra had all the instrumental colours called for – golden brass, luscious strings, perky woodwind – and, in their conductor Markus Poschner, the star of the show. What impressed me most was his weighted phrasing so that, particularly in the lyrical passages, the listener was hanging on to the musical line, thus adding to the emotional involvement.

If the soloists were not of the same high calibre there was nevertheless much to admire in their performances. Adam Kim as Barak lacked stage presence and vocal weight but offered some lovely legato singing. Brigitte Geller was at times shrill in the highest register but, this apart, was an excellent Empress, fully communicating her predicament with her passionate musicality  and perceptive dramatic engagement. Katherine Lerner as the Nurse did not perhaps provide sufficient evidence of the character’s malicious nature and motivations but convinced vocally with her rich mezzo soprano. Strauss was not fond of the tenor voice and, as the Emperor, Heiko Börner had to cope with a role which was typically less than grateful but, with an attractive lyrical tone, he made much of his solo scene in Act Two. Szilvia Rálik, imported at the last moment from Budapest to sing the part of Barak’s wife from the wings for the vocally indisposed Miina-Liisa Värelä, produced some thrilling, full-throated sounds.

Hermann Schneider’s production, along with Falko Herold’s imaginative designs and video projections, had the double merit of fidelity to Hofmannsthal’s conception and inner coherence. The revolving stage was adroitly used to contrast the sylvan world of the spirits with the ramshackle surrounds of base human activity and then, after divine intervention, the barren wastes of lifeless existence. With most of the original symbols of the fairy tale retained and magical effects stunningly realised, the staging was strong in the narrative dimension.

But the literal, perhaps over-literal, interpretation of the piece came at a price. Hofmannsthal’s fundamental theme, of human fulfilment through fertility, is not one which has an easy appeal to the modern mind; and, if truth be told, the appearance at the end of the Emperor and Empress pushing a pram provoked a feeling of embarrassment rather than one of inner satisfaction.  Most contemporary productions appropriately play down the idea, focussing instead on the need for individuals to seek their own identity by exploring, within themselves, the competing demands of spirituality and sensuality, egoistical ambitions and loving relationships. A more abstract, less symbol-dominated, approach, would have facilitated the reception of these broader notions.

One should not, however, be over-critical. This was a courageous, musically rich and dramatically compelling performance of a powerful opera which is infrequently allowed an outing.