Die Frau ohne Schatten, Richard Strauss’ dark fairy tale which he referred to as his ‘problem child’, is a massive undertaking for any opera company. The difficulty in casting the five key roles with voices capable of riding Strauss’ enormous orchestral forces, plus the monumental challenges Hofmannsthal’s libretto poses to the production team, ensure that new stagings are few and far between. Leipzig Oper is therefore making a bold statement in choosing to mark the 150th anniversary of Strauss’ birth with a new production of FroSch (as he abbreviated the title in correspondence). I attended the general rehearsal, two days before opening night, and so this isn’t a formal review as such. A couple of singers occasionally marked their roles and there was the odd technical hiccup. What follows will, I hope, give an impression of the production and performance, which should encourage those within striking distance to grab a ticket.

Ulf Schirmer, Leipzig Opera’s Music Director, chose to present the score using Karl Böhm’s cuts, reasoning before the rehearsal that the opera uncut can drag. With cuts observed, and with tempi that never pushed forward too hard, the opera still fairly sped along. The Gewandhaus Orchestra, drawing on the dark string sound at its core, made this most opulent of Strauss scores sound terrific. The careful build-up of orchestration – with extra brass appearing in the final act – helped to create the most thrilling crescendos. Solos were well taken, especially the mini violin concerto for Keikobad’s messenger in Act III, the production making him out as a devil (stealing the best tunes).

Hungarian director Balázs Kovalik has created a powerfully gritty staging, much less fairy-tale like in its setting than Claus Guth’s recent production (La Scala and Covent Garden) which was heavily influenced by Magritte, Freud and The Interpretation of Dreams. An austere palace populated by marble statues is home to the Emperor and his wife, while Barak the dyer lives in a slum, which he scours for parts to repair televisions. Heike Scheele’s split level set is a marvel, transporting the seedy downtown into opera house opulence when the Nurse tempts Barak’s wife into agreeing to the horrible bargain to trade her shadow (i.e. the ability to have children) for a life of luxury. Buildings rise and fall, skew and twist to morph from one scene to the next. A bridge careers around the stage in Act III, on which the Nurse’s final confrontations with the Empress and Keikobad’s messenger take place.

Strauss revered Mozart and Hofmannsthal’s heavily symbolist libretto to FroSch drew parallels with Die Zauberflöte, just as Der Rosenkavalier could be seen as a response to Le nozze di Figaro. The Emperor and Empress are the noble counterparts to Tamino and Pamina, whereas Barak and his tracksuited wife are the lowly equivalents to Papageno and Papagena. What Kovalik does which is interesting is to introduce a suggestion of ‘wife-swapping’; the apparition of a youth, with which the Nurse tempts Barak’s wife, is a double of the Emperor who, at one point, whisks her off in a vessel drawn by attendants in kinky bondage leather. Barak – the only character in the opera (other than the absent Keikobad) who bears a name – is the most ‘human’ character, nowhere more so than when he succumbs to the Empress’ passionate kiss towards the end of Act II.

A miscalculation comes at the end. While we’re used to seeing Papageno and Papagena duet among a flock of youngsters at the end of Die Zauberflöte, swamping the stage here with prams (what is the collective noun for prams?!) risks infecting what is a deeply poignant end to the opera with unintended comedy. Until this scene, I had wondered why the Falcon was represented by a child mouthing Olena Tokar’s off-stage voice.

The cast is mostly very strong, headed by the outstanding Empress of Simone Schneider who possesses a soprano of orchestra-cleaving power, but retains a warm, attractive tone. Burkhard Fritz, making his debut as the Emperor, makes an heroic Heldentenor sound. The role offers limited opportunities for detailed acting, although I liked Kovaliks’ decision to have the Emperor straitjacketed to represent his turning to stone. Jennifer Wilson matched Schneider for power as the Dyer’s wife, if purity of tone was occasionally lacking. Thomas Mayer was a solid Barak, lacking vocal colour, but in strong voice.

Doris Soffel’s red-suited Nurse is a sinister combination between a female Mephistopheles and Fanny Craddock. When she prepares the meal for Barak’s return, she is wheeled into a celebrity chef’s cookery programme – complete with giant TV set – with the five fish (representing the unborn children) sung by children in garish fish suits singing into microphones. Hell’s Kitchen indeed. Soffel, who has had a long career, is still capable of delivering a magnetic performance, and the Nurse’s fall from power was gripping. Kovalik, like Guth, can’t resist bringing the Nurse back at the close, although at least here it suggested, armed with her briefcase, she was accepting defeat before being packed off.

For an inventive production, fine singing and magnificent orchestral playing, this Leipzig Frau ohne Schatten deserves every success.



Mark Pullinger's flights to/ from Leipzig were sponsored by Ryanair.