Five years after first being seen at La Scala and three years after hitting the Covent Garden stage – where it remains one of the most successful imports of the Holten era – Claus Guth’s Die Frau ohne Schatten has made it to the Staatsoper in Berlin as the new production for this year's Festtage. The cast is new (with one exception); so too is the conductor.

Sarah Grether (Gazelle) and Camilla Nylund (Empress) © Hans Jörg Michel
Sarah Grether (Gazelle) and Camilla Nylund (Empress)
© Hans Jörg Michel

Semyon Bychkov was prevented at the last minute from presiding over the La Scala opening, but achieved wonders with the Royal Opera House Orchestra in London. It was his absence that was perhaps most keenly felt at this performance (particularly by anyone who saw the production in London). Instead it was presided over by Zubin Mehta, a Straussian of some pedigree but whose conducting lacked tenderness, precision and detail. Tempos veered from lugubrious schlepping to uncaring, brusque ploughing-through, and important motivic details failed to register (the voicing of the portentous chords that open the third act offered just the tiniest example of his apparent lack of care). There was a fatal lack, too, of the kind of security that allows for that all-important leap from play-through to true performance, which would have allowed the Staatskapelle to show what they can truly do with one of Strauss’s – indeed, opera’s – most kaleidoscopic and multi-faceted scores.

As it was, the orchestra still produced some moments of exquisite beauty, primarily in the extended solos for violin in Act 3 and cello in Act 2, even though the initial impact of the latter orchestral interlude was severely undermined by an additional cut that left just the torso of the stirring ‘O Tag des Glucks’ ensemble. Happily, at least, the second half of the final act reacted best to Mehta’s approach. It is here also where Guth’s production comes together to astonishingly powerful effect, particularly in his staging of the final quartet and the crunching orchestral climax that follows it.

Iréne Theorin (Barak the Dyer's Wife) © Hans Jörg Michel
Iréne Theorin (Barak the Dyer's Wife)
© Hans Jörg Michel

His main idea, as I understand it at least, is best explained as being akin to a film of something being smashed shown in slow-motion reverse, splintered fragments being reconstituted into a whole as if by magic. That is what seems to happen with the final image of serene humanity with which Guth concludes: its sudden appearance feels as if it comes about as the result of the fractured, disorienting dramatic shards of what has come before it suddenly coming back together into a whole, suddenly making sense, suddenly being as it always should have been. As is the case with Strauss’s music, though, this apparently neat conclusion in no way jettisons what has come before: it manages to carry with it all the pain and sorrow of those psychological trials. It makes for an intensely, viscerally moving moment of theatre.

To merely say that the production stages the action as the Kaiserin’s dream, meanwhile, is to offer too glib an explanation, to imply that dream and reality can be cleanly separated, or to suggest that one doesn’t still invest in what one dream, as the Empress here so clearly does. That Guth’s staging manages to mix both worlds while also providing a conclusion so satisfying is testament to what an astonishing achievement this production is. That it is now likely to go into the Staatsoper’s repertoire is cause for rejoicing.

Paul Lorenger (Black Gazelle, Keikobad), Camilla Nylund (Empress) © Hans Jörg Michel
Paul Lorenger (Black Gazelle, Keikobad), Camilla Nylund (Empress)
© Hans Jörg Michel

Arguably some angles are missing, and certainly Guth underplays the magic, the elements of the Baroque which Hofmannsthal, largely in retrospect, began to see as so important in the work – the übermächte, for example, seem to lose some of their threatening power when they are embodied as the Amme’s winged minions. The director also, admittedly, employs many of his standard devices: a revolve, a set of luxurious curved wood (designed by Christian Schmidt), a milieu coloured by pale, languid aristocratic sorrow. But rarely can these have been a better fit. The stagecraft is characteristically impeccable and the simple elegance, both visual and dramatic, of his half-animal, half-human extras is powerful—the dumb shows involving the Falcon or the magnificently horned Keikobad are often profoundly moving.

Camilla Nylund (Empress), Michaele Schuster (Nurse) © Hans Jörg Michel
Camilla Nylund (Empress), Michaele Schuster (Nurse)
© Hans Jörg Michel
Much of the power, of the final scene in particular, is also thanks to the fearless Empress of Camilla Nylund. Her lyric soprano is pushed to extremes on occasion and arguably could do with a bit more richness and coloristic variety in its tone, but Nylund sings and acts with stunning commitment and throws herself heroically into Guth’s final demands, to magnificent effect. Iréne Theorin's Dyer's Wife goes from strength to strength throughout the evening, her big, bright soprano hitting its stride in time for her big moment at the end of act 2 and never letting slip after that. Michaela Schuster, the only veteran from London and Milan, has made the Amme her own, especially in this brilliantly sardonic and witty characterization. Burkhard Fritz and Wolfgang Koch offer intelligent and deeply committed performances as the Emperor and Barak, even if others have brought more tonal glamour to the roles. The rest of the large cast list is expertly filled by members of the Staatsoper ensemble.

They all bring Guth’s production to life, make it work so well, and deserve every credit. It’s the intelligence and profound, human beauty of that production itself that makes this such an unforgettable, unmissable experience. 

****1