Vladimir Jurowski, the George Enescu Festival’s Artistic Director, had the wonderful idea to celebrate here, in Bucharest, the centennial of Die Frau one Schatten’s première. It’s one of Richard Strauss’ most complex and luxuriously sounding scores, an opus that deserves its place in the Pantheon despite Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s full of idiosyncrasies libretto describing, in nuce, the Empress’ slow journey from half-spirit to full acceptance of everything human.

Vladimir Jurowski conducts Die Frau ohne Schatten in Bucharest
© Andrada Pavel

Even just musically, a successful rendition of Die Frau one Schatten is very difficult to pull off (the composer himself called the work “his child of woe”), demanding a huge orchestral apparatus and a series of singers – in both principal and secondary roles – of the highest quality. Fortunately, Jurowski has brought to Bucharest musicians he has cooperated with for a long time. The orchestra was his own Berlin Radio Symphony. Three of the main soloists – Ildikó Komlósi, Anne Schwanewilms and Torsten Kerl – were featured, under Jurowski’s baton, in the extraordinarily Herbert Wernicke production that the Metropolitan Opera revived in 2013.

With his elegant and precise gestures, Jurowski made sure to emphasize every occurrence of a leitmotif and to underline the beauty of as many details as possible. However, moments of tenderness, humor or passion were not always distinguishable enough. Tightly controlling the huge ensemble, he created a sound tapestry that didn’t cover the voices but invited them to fly. The members of the orchestra responded very well to his demands, not only collectively but also in the solo contributions – cello, violin, oboe – and in the frequent dialogues between individual instruments and singers. Overall, it was a balanced rendition that lacked, at least occasionally, the difficult to capture special sensuality, opulence and voluptuousness of the Straussian sound.

Vladimir Jurowski and cast
© Andrada Pavel

In the go-between role of the Nurse, arguably the most important of the opera, Komlósi demonstrated again both her vocal and her theatrical abilities. Her voice might sound a tad tired at times, but the Hungarian mezzo dominated the stage, portraying very well a multi-faced character that can successively be fiery, tender or cunning. Singing the role of the Empress, the woman trying to acquire a shadow, Schwanewilms took a little time to warm up. The ethereal qualities of her voice became more and more evident as her character gained confidence. The most consistent performance among the five principal interpreters came from soprano Ricarda Merbeth who easily conveyed the Dyer’s wife sincerity and naïveté. She had no problem reaching with full force the high notes of her part, adding sweet tenderness to her most hysterical moments. As the dyer Barak, her husband, baritone Thomas J. Mayer, brought poise to his performance. He compensated a lack of heft with charismatic melodiousness and touches of humor. Tenor Kerl was the infelicitous Emperor, showing the best qualities of his voice – more subtle than stentorian – in the falcon scene. The secondary roles were all superbly cast. Singing from the back of the stage, counter-tenor Andrey Nemzer, as the Guardian of Temple’s Threshold, sung his few lines with unbelievable purity. In an even smaller role, contralto Karolina Gumos was a true “Voice from above”. Russian bass Nikolay Didenko was an assured Keikobad’s Messenger and Nadezhda Gulitskaya’s “Voice of a Falcon” had the inflections of the accompanying oboe. Tenor Michael Pflumm was The Apparition of a Youth and Barak’s three brothers were interpreted with humor by Christoph Späth, Tom-Erik Lie, and Jens Larsen.

Unfortunately, the rewarding musical performance was marred by the placing of a huge, dominating screen behind the orchestra. It was used for displaying the translated text (a well-thought decision, considering the opera’s convoluted plot and verbose libretto). At the same time though, it was the locus for a plethora of images and symbols moving constantly in all directions and competing against each other: playing-card-like animated figures echoing the singing protagonists, too colourful, meaningless abstract shapes and even extracts from the German libretto. Listening to opera in concert has a big advantage, allowing the audience to just focus on the music. The evening’s repetitive and pleonastic visuals (Carmen Lidia Vidu was listed as the multimedia director) were more distracting than any awkward “real” staging. Using video sets instead of three-dimensional cardboard ones has a bright future, but this was not a felicitous example.