From its opening chords this concert version of Die Frau ohne Schatten conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin promised to be something special. Richard Strauss’ allegorical opera about two married couples with serious communication problems starts with the brass and timpani hammering out a three-note motif. It represents Keikobad, ruler of the spirit world, an invisible but pivotal character who is heard only in the music. Nézet-Séguin sent each third chord receding into the distance, making the repeated figure roll like thunder. With such attention to micro-detail, every particle of this complex, three-hour long score sounded indispensable. Taking a decidedly lyrical approach, Nézet-Séguin luxuriated in Strauss’ melodic abundance and lingered whenever the orchestra slunk to chamber format. But he also delivered the thrills, and, when called for, the decibels, such as in the seismic Act 2 finale. Most impressive was the flow with which he transitioned each mood into the next. And, whether weaving a translucent tapestry around the singers or galloping through the thick, tempestuous intermezzi between scenes, he always kept the orchestral textures clear. Leading the Rotterdam Philharmonic, where he used to hold tenure as principal conductor, he could spin with gold... and, taking that gold, he spun it into platinum. Besides providing a gleaming cello interlude and a moving, intimate concertmaster solo, the orchestra collectively mined the riches of the score with quicksilver woodwinds and a tireless brass section.

<i>Die Frau ohne Schatten</i> in concert © Jan Hordijk
Die Frau ohne Schatten in concert
© Jan Hordijk

While the musicians revelled in their starring role, the cast excelled in their taxing parts as Nézet-Séguin, who must be a dream conductor for singers, created space for them to breathe life into their characters. If the Nurse is not mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster’s favourite role, it must be very close. Not letting the concert format get in her way, she embodied the devious servant from her first scene, an unpleasant exchange with her master Keikobad’s Messenger, in this case, baritone Thomas Oliemans exuding menacing authority. Schuster negotiated the huge interval leaps with panache and a glint in her eye, her stabbing top notes betraying the predatory nature of her character, born to scheme but doomed to serve. Her disingenuous manipulation of Barak’s Wife into selling her shadow to the Empress, and with it her fertility, was a masterful piece of theatre. 

Like Schuster, soprano Lise Lindstrom and baritone Michael Volle brought the benefit of having lived with their characters on the opera stage to their fully fledged portrayals of the Dyer Barak and his Wife. Volle sang with warmth and heart, inflecting every syllable with unerring sensibility. Nézet-Séguin reflected the innate nobility of his Dyer in the orchestra, lovingly buffing the ambling bassoon figures accompanying Barak’s mundane tasks. Lindstrom competed for our loyalty by summoning pathos and sympathy for her frustrated Wife. Her slender voice is enticingly warm in the middle and focused on top. You could easily believe, seeing her suffer so beautifully, why Barak remains besotted with his wife no matter how much she scolds him. 

<i>Die Frau ohne Schatten</i> in concert © Jan Hordijk
Die Frau ohne Schatten in concert
© Jan Hordijk

The imperial pair reached similar vocal heights. Tenor Stephen Gould was an heroic and indefatigable Emperor, starting his long scene in Act 2 in poetic tandem with the orchestra before building up fearlessly to the punishing climax. The Empress presented no technical hurdles for soprano Elza van den Heever. She had the agility and lightness for her first scene, when the young bride is so insubstantial that “light passes through her as if she were made of glass”, and the fullness and shine required in the rest of the role. To soar in this high-lying music with such consistent quality is no mean feat, especially considering that Van den Heever was making her role debut during this mini-tour, of which Rotterdam was the third and last stop. No doubt she will add more textual contouring and colouring as she explores the character further in staged productions, first at Dutch National Opera later this year and then next season at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The key scene in which the Empress decides not to steal the Dyer’s Wife shadow, thus obtaining it by choosing solidarity over selfishness, revealed the potential of her portrayal. In her emotional intensity, surrounded by the sonic theatre conjured up by Nézet-Séguin, she was as white-hot as her high notes. 

The rest of the fine supporting cast featured Katrien Baerts as an inviting Guardian of the Threshold and Bror Magnus Tødenes as the youth leading the Wife into temptation with his attractive tenor. Andreas Conrad, Michael Wilmering and Nathan Berg formed a lively trio as Barak’s needy brothers. The Nationaal Kinderkoor were superlative, as were the Rotterdam Symphony Chorus, who also supplied the voices of the watchmen extolling marital love in a sublime mezza voce.

*****