How’s this for a 20th-century plot? A supernatural Empress is married to a human Emperor who will be turned to stone if the Empress is not able to buy a shadow from a poor woman. And those are just the basic elements.
Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten is sometimes described as his response to The Magic Flute.
Underneath it lies the same idea of a test of worthiness. But where Mozart’s opera can be seen on one level almost as pantomime, this is so heavily allegorical and suffused with psychological ambiguity that it defeats almost all directors.
Claus Guth’s solution is to treat it all as the sexually charged dream of a frustrated young wife. The device works, so that focus is directed away from the more creaking elements of the plot.
But if I urge you to see this new production, it’s not because of the staging, excellent as that is. It’s because you will never hear a finer performance of a Strauss opera than the blazing, incandescent, tender and opulent reading of the glorious score that Semyon Bychkov secures from the Royal Opera House orchestra. On this evidence, we have the Vienna and Berlin philharmonics rolled into one in the Covent Garden pit.
Too often, gorgeous orchestral performances of Strauss are let down by barking from the singers. Not here. The five principals are sensational — every note is pitch perfect and musical. As the Empress, Emily Magee’s soprano floats above the orchestra. And Elena Pankratova is dramatically compelling as the Wife. Michaela Schuster’s Nurse is the lynchpin of the production and is even better than her recent Klytaemnestra.
Emperor Johan Botha’s pure, ringing heldentenor tone seems from a bygone age and Johan Reuter’s Barak completes a simply perfect cast.
This is as good as it gets.