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Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, July 2012

…Peter Seiffert’s gleaming, disciplined lyric tenor has all the heft required for the role of the Emperor, the stamina for his pair of solo scenes, and a persuasively cantabile way with phrasing throughout. (When he starts up “Wenn das Herz aus Kristall” in act III, you know you’re listening to Legendary Singing.) As much can be said for Alan Titus, who bows Barak’s long-limbed melodies with warmth and insight. Marjana Lipovšek is a magnificent Nurse, manipulative but never heavy-handed.

Wolfgang Sawallisch has gone on record as stating that he loves the work, and it shows. The camerawork throughout is excellent, finding angles and distances that concentrate on all the elements of importance at any given moment on stage. If you’ve ever had any interest in this opera, or know someone who does, this is the DVD version to get. © 2012 Fanfare Read complete review

Paul Pelkonen
Superconductor, May 2011

Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten is his grandest work, a three-act fairy tale on an enormous scale. The piece requires seven stellar singers, a giant orchestra, and a panoply of visual effects to depict events on three different planes of existence as the story follows the marital troubles of two couples in their struggle to conceive children. This stunning production was filmed in Nagoya, Japan in 1992, was scheduled for broadcast on Japanese television, but objections from that country’s censors led to the broadcast never being aired.

The mythology of this opera was created by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Strauss’ frequent librettist. An Emperor and an Empress, married for a year, have no children. She is the daughter of the fairy-king Keikobad. The Empress learns that she has three days to gain a shadow, (a symbol of her fertility) or her husband will be turned to stone. Aided by her Nurse, the Empress travels to the human world to buy a shadow, and encounters another troubled couple: the dyer Barak and his wife. After a series of trials, both couples are rewarded with the promise of long happiness and children to come.

Japanese director Ennosuke Ishikawa’s mounts the opera with elements of Noh plays and elaborate costuming to create the three worlds of the opera: the fairy realm, the royal palace of the Emperor and Empress, and the humble hovel of the Baraks. Tomio Morhi’s costumes are impressive, from the simple homespun for the dyer and his wife to the full, elaborate kabuki costume (complete with multi-tiered crown) worn by Peter Seiffert as the Emperor. The sets are minimal and effective, using the “zones” of Noh theater to make the most complex moments in the opera clear and easily understood.

It is a credit to soprano Luana DeVol that she makes an engaging, human character of the somewhat abstract Empress—and that she communicates effectively through the heavy, white makeup. From her fluttering, flighty entrance, she walks a complicated path. This is a tough role, made more difficult in that the Empress is mostly mute in the second act. At the climax (in a temple before the rapidly petrifying body of her husband) displaying power and resolve in that spoken monologue, which earns her the shadow and reunites the four couples for an ensemble climaxing in a glorious unison high C.

Janis Martin sings with great power and precision in the equally difficult role of the Dyer’s Wife, a character, like many Strauss heroines, based on the composer’s famously difficult wife Pauline. But it is mezzo-soprano Marjana Lipovsek who is simply stunning as the Nurse, the ambivalent “helper” who becomes the opera’s antagonist as the plot develops. Her final scene in the third act, with its thrilling high note at the end, is one of the most rewarding parts of this performance.

The men are not to be left out. Peter Seiffert’s Emperor is caught here early in a fine career, displaying an agile heldentenor with youth and bloom. Alan Titus, an underrated baritone, is a wonderful Barak, with dark, rich tones and a feeling of heavy resignation at the status of his difficult marriage. Jan-Hendrik Rootering is a towering, imposing presence. The bass plays the Spirit Messenger in full samurai armor and with a rich, black-toned bass that simply resonates with authority.

These performances of Frau marked Wolfgang Sawallisch’s last bow as director of the Bavarian State Opera. The maestro has perfect control over his sprawling forces, leading the most complicated and intricate passages in the score with a sure hand. The famously difficult last act, with its panoply of offstage choruses, ringing fanfares and duets sung by physically separated singers is a challenge for any conductor. Mr. Sawallisch is now retired, but these DVDs show why he was considered to be one of the greatest Strauss conductors in the world.

Gavin Plumley
Entartete Musik, April 2011

It was a good decision to set Die Frau ohne Schatten within a Japanese tradition. Hofmannsthal’s strange fairytale and Strauss’s enormous score provide numerous questions, which Enossuke Ichikawa’s production answers with new colours, traditions and rituals. Filmed in 1992, the immediate attraction of this Arthaus Musik DVD is the presence of Wolfgang Sawallisch in the pit and a strong Bayerische Staatsoper cast on stage. But despite the quality of performances on offer, the filming is largely static, reminding us how far we’ve come in our filming of opera.

There will always be people who cannot take Die Frau ohne Schatten. For them the score is often too huge, overpowering and saccharine. This recording is contrastingly chamber like. Closely recorded, with singers sounding as if in a small studio (rather than the large Aicihi Prefectural Art Theatre in Nagoya), Sawallisch elicits a more intimate performance. Ultimately I missed the enormous bloom of the Solti recording (surely the benchmark), but nevertheless appreciated the novel take.

Although he’s no Domingo, Peter Seiffert is an admirable Kaiser. Occasional notes are dropped within the treacherously strident lines, but he thrills with top notes and maintains a charming lyricism in the second act monologue. Marjana Lipovšek is a wonderfully forthright Nurse, though her intonation is yet more wayward. Luana DeVol makes for a well-voiced Empress, commanding the Strauss idiom, while Sawallisch tempers the vast machine laid out for him with detail and sweeping builds. Occasionally he pushes tempos, so as to not appear to overthink, but generally he allows for a natural pace.

That element realism in the musical performance is at odds with the highly stylised production. The pitch black spirit level against which Turandot-like figures stand and sing is tediously unvarying (exacerbated by the more or less fixed camera positions). The human world is much clearer, allowing Alan Titus and Janis Martin’s performances as Barak as his wife to shine. There’s genuine warmth here, not least from Barak (who can seem too bullish in other contexts); Sawallisch underlines with balmy string tone.

Ultimately, Ichikawa allows that warmth to invade the spirit world and the production is slowly suffused with colour. It is a deft metaphor for fertility, though even here the filming can rob the setting (and music) of its magic. Huge sections are played downstage centre, with a camera position fixed in the mid stalls. As Strauss’s kaleidoscopic score whirls around the drama, Ichikawa’s production remains entirely static. There’s a major disconnect here, though I wonder whether any director has yet solved it (certainly not in the productions I’ve seen). It’s wonderful to hear the score under Sawallisch’s expert care, with some commanding performances from his cast, but for me Die Frau ohne Schatten remains an audio rather than a visual pleasure.

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