When I first heard Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, I was dazzled by the virtuosity of the score and by many of its individual passages. But I have never really got my head round the structure and flow of the work as a whole. Until, that is, last night at Covent Garden, where Semyon Bychkov gave a reading of such clarity and quality that everything seemed obvious: I relaxed back into my seat thinking “well, that’s what it’s all about”.

Emily Magee as the Empress © ROH 2014 / Clive Barda
Emily Magee as the Empress
© ROH 2014 / Clive Barda

In Bychkov’s hands, the orchestra was a precision instrument. Even in so dense a score, every instrument could be heard clearly, perfectly in balance with the others but with main themes being brought to the fore at the right times. The pacing was impeccable, keeping up the story’s forward progress for three hours of music (faltering slightly, perhaps, only at the very end).

I’ll just name a few of the many examples of fabulous individual passages. The chord which closes Act I starts strong but is held delicately, evanescently as each sound dies away until silence is left. In Act II, the falcon’s mournful wail, a repeated pair of descending notes in the high woodwinds, is underlaid first with the most elegiac of cello and double bass parts, later with a portentous brass chorale. And Bychkov does rhapsody like nothing I’ve ever heard, with swelling phrases bursting into waves of emotion. Towards the end of Act II, the orchestra unleashes total mayhem and left us breathless as the evil Nurse’s efforts are overcome by powers that she cannot control.

Michaela Schuster as the Nurse © ROH 2014 / Clive Barda
Michaela Schuster as the Nurse
© ROH 2014 / Clive Barda
In all five main roles, we had soloists at the top of their game. The most impressive was Michaela Schuster as the Nurse, who dominated proceedings from the outset. Schuster was magnetic on stage, a true incarnation of malice with power and characterisation of voice to match. Her antithesis is Barak the dyer, the incarnation of simple goodness. Johan Reuter sang Barak with nobility: no richness, no histrionics, just a baritone sound that was heartfelt, clear and smooth. Barak’s shrewish and later penitent wife was sung with rock solid technique and lashings of power by Russian soprano Elena Pankratova in her Covent Garden début. The Emperor and Empress are more problematic roles: Johan Botha sang richly within the rather one dimensional limits of the Emperor’s character, while the Empress’s role is more difficult since a supposedly ethereal, diaphanous creature is given vocal lines that are as powerful as anyone else’s, while posing the same requirement for the singer to compete with a huge orchestra. Emily Magee wasn’t exactly ethereal, but was wonderful to listen to. A word, too, for Anush Hovhannisyan as the voice of the falcon, whose repeated lament was delivered with delicacy and great beauty.

Your reaction to Claus Guth’s staging will most likely depend on two things: whether you like dark wood and how you feel about the rendering of fairy tales. The first is because you’re going to spend an awful lot of your evening looking at dark wood veneer, which covers virtually all the backdrop for most of the opera. I found it all rather oppressive and visually unexciting, detracting from any of the more interesting visuals happening on stage (there was a big emphasis on gazelles, following on from the Empress’s shape-shifting abilities).

Michaela Schuster as Nurse, Emily Magee as Empress, Johan Botha as Emperor © ROH 2014 / Clive Barda
Michaela Schuster as Nurse, Emily Magee as Empress, Johan Botha as Emperor
© ROH 2014 / Clive Barda

Guth, it seems to me, doesn’t really trust the fairy tale nature of Die Frau. I may not have more than the barest smattering of knowledge of Freud and Jung, but I’ve read The uses of enchantment and I respond strongly to the messages contained within fairy tales, both in my conscious and unconscious selves. Guth goes for making everything explicit: the messages are deconstructed, analysed, re-assembled and served up in convenient bite-sized chunks. For example, we see frequent appearances of the father-figure Keikobad (who is notably absent in the original) dressed as a smart gentleman with an over-sized antelope’s head. In case we’re in any doubt that this is an opera about hopes and dreams, the opera is framed by the Empress in her sick bed; the Nurse is a hospital nurse and not a nanny. The duality between Barak/his wife and Emperor/Empress is reinforced by costumes and by transforming Barak from dyer into tanner: he is working not on cloths but on a gazelle pelt which, we presume, his alter ego the Emperor has hunted.

In Guth’s defence, all this dream analysis is plausibly consonant with the themes in the opera: the production seeks to illuminate the original rather than to introduce concepts alien to it. So even though I didn’t respond to this staging emotionally, I can respect it as having intelligence and integrity. And there were some nice touches: beautiful costumes and choreography for the falcon and gazelle; outstanding hairstyle and make-up for Schuster’s Nurse; impressive rocky scenery for the moon-mountain where the Emperor is entrapped; clever scene-shifting effects to emphasise the separation between Barak and his wife in Act III. And when Guth does let his Freudian hair down and allows Keikobad’s thunder and lightning to take over the stage, the effects are fantastically awesome.

But however you respond to the staging, if you are in any way a lover of Strauss’s music, this is a must-see. The singing was superb throughout, the acting decent and the orchestral performance nothing short of a revelation. Don’t miss it.