Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal began their collaboration on Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow) with utopian ambitions. Unfortunately they weren’t the same ones. For Hofmannsthal, this would finally be the opera where his poetry would be illuminated by rather than buried under the music. For Strauss, this was to be his magnum opus, the self-proclaimed “last Romantic opera” that would cement his place in musical history. The gargantuan work that finally emerged after World War I for a 1919 premiere didn’t end up being quite what they expected, and was lengthy and demanding enormous orchestral and vocal force, even by Straussian standards.

The plot recalls the supernatural quest of The Magic Flute. A semi-human Empress, stolen by her Emperor from the spirit world, must find a shadow to remain human (and become fertile). Her nurse connives to steal a poor dyer’s wife’s shadow, and magical complications ensue for four hours or so. Despite a successful premiere, the opera’s popularity never approached that of Rosenkavalier or Salome. Audiences found Hofmannsthal’s symbolism and Strauss’s complex score outmoded, and for a long time the opera was considered a masterful white elephant. Today, its demands still make it a rarity, but it is often considered one of Strauss’s finest achievements, if also one of his strangest. The libretto’s transformations, trials, and obsession with fertility still pose a challenge to stage directors.

The Salzburger Festspiele was launched in 1920 by Strauss and Hofmannsthal, among others. Its goals were also utopian, to forge a new cultural identity for the new nation of post-imperial Austria. But Die Frau ohne Schatten didn’t reach the festival until 1932, and was not performed there without cuts until 1974 (the cuts are fairly minor, but purists take them seriously). It had a second uncut production in 1994, conducted by Georg Solti and directed by Götz Friedrich, now available on DVD.

This year’s festival brings a third complete Frau to Salzburg, conducted by Christian Thielemann and directed by Christof Loy. The Wiener Philharmoniker, the orchestra of the premiere, is in the pit, and they and Thielemann were unquestionably the highlight of this performance. Strauss’s score is astonishing in its variety, combining chromatic crashes reminiscent of Elektra with the lush melodies of Rosenkavalier and even moments of the chamber-like Ariadne auf Naxos. Thielemann’s masterfully paced, colorful conducting was alert to each twist and turn, and the orchestra responded with gleaming, very loud playing and amazing collective virtuosity. String solos in particular were excellent, often filled with old-school portamento. While not note-perfect, it was a captivating performance.

The orchestra, in fact, stole the show. While the singers were rarely drowned out, they did seem relegated to the background. Much more severely, Loy’s production excused itself from exploring or even staging the drama. The setting was loosely inspired by the recording1955 of Die Frau under conductor Karl Böhm, still the recording of choice for this opera, and the sets by Johannes Leiacker recreate the Baroque Sofiensaal recording studio (though the recording was actually made in the Musikverein, a fact the production team neglects to point out). The cast consists of a group of singers making this recording. For much of the opera they stand around singing into (non-functioning) microphones.

Loy purportedly stages a new plot about these singers with Strauss’s score as a super-powered soundtrack. However, even after reading his summary in the program book this new plot was nearly impossible to follow. More or less, the lives of the singers would occasionally intersect with the events of the opera--the inexperienced soprano singing the Kaiserin observes quietly, the husband-wife team as Barak and his wife fight, the diva singing Nurse becomes angry. Effectively, this means that Loy chose to stage a few scenes of the opera as found in the libretto and let his recording concept take care of the rest of it, most notably meaning that he didn’t have to stage any magic at all. There are a few Easter egg allusions (including an Elektra joke with an ax and cameos by a few old celebrities of the recording industry), but also a few confusing fantasy sequences and, incomprehensibly, a Christmas concert at the end. Without any plot to follow, it’s a lazy and boring production that is somehow offensive in its lack of interest in the work it is nominally staging.

The level of singing was high, though perhaps did not quite measure up to that of the orchestra. The performers struggled to convey any personality in the staging, and all were far more memorable for their vocal achievements than their theatrical ones. Anne Schwanewilms’s Empress was at the center, and while her soprano is not large it has a focused, cutting quality that projected well, and her phrasing was stylish and individual. Occasionally her high notes would get away from her, though. In the demanding role of the Dyer’s Wife, requiring a larger and darker voice than the Emperess, soprano Evelyn Herlitzius gave a vocal tour de force with amazing endurance and huge, plush sound. Michaela Schuster, as the villainous Nurse, came the closest to creating a real character, not entirely a monster but a woman with some very specific demands. While not luxuriously sung, her forceful voice did the job. Among the men, Wolfgang Koch was a somewhat anonymous but tastefully and warmly sung Barak. Stephen Gould’s dark Heldentenor voice is somewhat low for the Emperor, and his phrasing stiffer than ideal for the surging Romanticism of his music, but his sheer volume and heft were impressive. Smaller roles, the chorus and children’s chorus were exemplary.

While any performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten is an event, this was a frustratingly asymmetrical one. This performance was filmed and broadcast on Austrian TV, but it seems like a CD would be a far better idea than a DVD.