It was the 150th birthday of the opening of the Vienna State Opera, and 100 years since the première of Die Frau ohne Schatten, the opera that the Staatsoper’s newly inaugurated co-director Richard Strauss planned as his gift to the war-ravaged city. No pressure, then, on young Frenchman Vincent Huguet, directing his first opera here.

Stephen Gould (Emperor), Camilla Nylund (Empress), Nina Stemme (Dyer's wife) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pohn
Stephen Gould (Emperor), Camilla Nylund (Empress), Nina Stemme (Dyer's wife)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pohn

Huguet starts with a big advantage: he actually likes and trusts the work and wants to present it on its own terms in a way that’s as suitable for a first-time audience as for hardened Straussians. That means embracing fairytale and the supernatural while avoiding faux orientalism. Set designer Aurélie Mestre gives us a pavilion in the clouds, then rocky cliffs and pinnacles for the “moon mountains”, which are artfully transformed into Barak’s dwelling in a shattered city – a nod to the horrors of Vienna in 1919 that finds repeated echoes through the production. It’s not perfectly executed – some of the video projection is a bit clunky – but it’s effective.

Fairy tales play with our deep psychology, most being cautionary tales. Huguet eschews beating the messages into us, rather providing the backdrop for us to gather them from the music. GIven the place and the occasion, Huguet and conductor Christian Thielemann have a wonderful array of talent to draw from.

Evelyn Herlitzius (Nurse), Camilla Nylund (Empress) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pohn
Evelyn Herlitzius (Nurse), Camilla Nylund (Empress)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pohn

Can there be a more potent opera orchestra than the Vienna State Opera’s? I doubt it. It’s the low instruments that make the biggest impact – cellos, basses, tuba, trombones, contrabassoons. The orchestral growl that announces the arrival of Keikobad’s Spirit Messenger menaced. An exquisite cello solo epitomised the quality achieved in the tender moments. When the orchestra was in full cry at the points where the “higher powers” show their hand, the power was overwhelming. But the high instruments play their full part, not least with the high woodwind wail of the falcon’s cry. Throughout, Thielemann drew from his players an extraordinary richness of colour palette, providing the best possible demonstration of the compositional virtuosity in this score.

Wolfgang Koch (Barak) and brothers Green, Hasselhorn, Ebenstein © Wiener Staatsoper | MIchael Pohn
Wolfgang Koch (Barak) and brothers Green, Hasselhorn, Ebenstein
© Wiener Staatsoper | MIchael Pohn

The danger, as always with Richard Strauss in Vienna, is that the singers won’t be able to compete – you only have to look at the instrumentation, which includes no less than 16 woodwind instruments and 19 brass. There were casualties in the low male voices: Wolfgang Koch’s Barak the Dyer was sung smoothly with heartfelt nobility, but became rather submerged when the orchestra ratcheted up in Acts 2 and 3, while Sebastian Holecek’s Spirit Messenger lacked the raw power to add further menace to what the orchestra was already delivering. Stephen Gould fared better, singing the Emperor with the apparent recklessness and abandon of a true heldentenor, the high notes shining brightly and unforced.

What the evening did have, though, was girl power, in the shape of a superb trio of sopranos: Camilla Nylund, Nina Stemme and Evelyn Herlitzius. The role of the Empress calls for the toughest set of transformations, from bright, almost skittish decoration early in the opera through to true dramatic intensity as she turns from a fragile creature into a heroic protagonist, achieving humanity through selflessness. Nylund accomplished all this with complete credibility, maintaining purity and beauty of timbre at every point. The Dyer’s wife is seen as a lesser role, but Nina Stemme invested it with so much emotional integrity as to make it the perfect earthly counterpart to the ethereal Empress, her voice veering between harsh harridan and lyrical legato. Evelyn Herlitzius threw everything into her character of the Nurse, but in spite of a superb demonstration of vocal artistry, I question whether hers is the right voice for a role which has a wide range but is normally cast for a mezzo: Hofmannstahl saw the Nurse as the embodiment of the demonic forces of darkness and Herlitzius’ timbre feels too bright to capture this fully. Still, it’s a rare treat to hear three such great Straussian voices and the rapport between these three singers was evident.

Evelyn Herlitzius (Nurse), Camilla Nylund (Empress), Nina Stemme (Dyer's wife) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pohn
Evelyn Herlitzius (Nurse), Camilla Nylund (Empress), Nina Stemme (Dyer's wife)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pohn

It’s often pointed out, correctly, that the trials undergone by the royal and commoner couples in Die Frau ohne Schatten are inspired by those in Die Zauberflöte. But don’t be fooled: the Zauberflöte trials are cheerful things with a foregone conclusion. When performed by artists of the quality tonight, the trials in Die Frau are genuinely scary: the vicious way in which the Nurse misleads Barak and his wife, the allure of the Water of Life and the anguish with which the Empress needs to invoke Keikobad gave genuine fear that the tests are too hard. Effective staging and the blistering orchestral performance made us properly alarmed that our protagonists would fail and mercifully released when they did not.

Happy Birthday, Haus am Ring. You did a fine job of marking the event.

150 years of opera in cake - by Gerstner © Bachtrack Ltd | David Karlin
150 years of opera in cake - by Gerstner
© Bachtrack Ltd | David Karlin
****1