Claus Guth’s staging of Die Frau ohne Schatten had already been unveiled in Berlin some 18 months ago. That was at the Schillertheater, though, where grand sets already seen at La Scala and Covent Garden couldn’t help but feel a little confined. The production’s arrival at the renovated Staatsoper unter den Linden gave the production more space to breathe, as well as putting the spruced up theatre through its sonic paces. Sure, we’ve had a fair bit of Wagner and Strauss already in the place, but few scores raise the roof – already literally raised, at considerable expense, in the refurbishment – more than Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s grandest and most fantastical joint creation.

Sarah Grether (Weiße Gazelle) and Camilla Nylund (Die Kaiserin) © Hans Jörg Michel (2017)
Sarah Grether (Weiße Gazelle) and Camilla Nylund (Die Kaiserin)
© Hans Jörg Michel (2017)

Certainly there was no holding back from Simone Young, who exerted precisely the sort of iron control from the podium that had been missing when Zubin Mehta conducted the score at the Schillertheater. The Staatskapelle sounded fabulous: silky, rich and transparent, packing a huge punch while retaining a virtuosic fleetness and flexibility. There was superb playing across the board, with glorious solos from the orchestra’s principal violin, cello and horn (well-hidden in the sunken pit and, alas, unidentifiable from my stalls seat). 

There were moments where Young seem to be in a rush. The descent to the world of humans was especially hair-raising, and, more damagingly, she powered through the final orchestral climax without giving us a chance to savour its scrunchingly intertwining dissonances – and somewhat undermining this most virtuosic and potentially poleaxing moment in Guth’s staging. That was a shame in an otherwise superb reading, and one certainly not lacking in lyrical warmth or generosity. 

Paul Lorenger (Schwarze Gazelle) and Camilla Nylund (Die Kaiserin) © Hans Jörg Michel (2017)
Paul Lorenger (Schwarze Gazelle) and Camilla Nylund (Die Kaiserin)
© Hans Jörg Michel (2017)

Young had at her disposal a terrific cast, mixing stalwarts of the staging with newcomers. It’s now difficult to imagine anyone other than Michaela Schuster embodying the Nurse as reimagined by Guth. The mezzo has appeared in the staging from the start, and offers a compelling mixture of haughtiness and strangely endearing mischief, along with some thrilling singing. Elena Pankratova, last seen at the production’s London outing, is even more exciting as the Dyer’s Wife. Her German might not be the most intelligible, but the voice – offering a rare and wonderful mixture of volume and tonal beauty – soars excitingly aloft with little sign of effort. And she’s a moving actress too. Camilla Nylund repeats her outstanding Kaiserin, offering the same mixture of fearless acting, seductive creamy timbre and apparently endless vocal stamina.  

Sarah Grether (Weiße Gazelle), Camilla Nylund (Die Kaiserin) and Michaela Schuster (Die Amme) © Hans Jörg Michel (2017)
Sarah Grether (Weiße Gazelle), Camilla Nylund (Die Kaiserin) and Michaela Schuster (Die Amme)
© Hans Jörg Michel (2017)

Newcomers to the staging came in the form of their opposite numbers. Michael Volle made a sympathetic and unusually intelligent Barak, but the voice, though impressively powerful when fully unleashed, showed some signs of tiredness in those quieter passages that are so important for establishing the character. There were few signs of tiredness from Simon O’Neill, by contrast, making an impressive role debut as the Kaiser. The New Zealander's sharp-focused tenor cut through even the knottiest orchestral textures, and any stiffness in the characterisation arguably represented a good fit for this famously unflinching character – in many ways an assemblage of unthinking masculine archetypes. There was excellent work elsewhere, too, not least Boaz Daniel’s firmly implacable Geisterbote. 

Guth’s staging, with its stylish fin de siècle sets and haunting half-animal extras (designs by Christian Schmidt), all strikingly lit by Olaf Winter, still looks beautiful. It’s also the most clearly thought-through treatment of this work I’ve seen: a focused interpretation that never seems to limit this endlessly rich and fascinating work’s broader allegorical possibilities; a staging (spoiler alert!) that offers the action as a dream not as a lazy cop-out, but as a way of delving more deeply and movingly into all its psychological richness. And in this revival it struck me as even more clearly defined, more compellingly conveyed. A fine revival. 

****1