Reading that review summary at first glance that might sound contradictory. Explaining why I wrote those two words in the same sentence, there were parts I did find interesting including the concept, the musical side was impeccable, but there was also the final act which in all honesty left me frustrated. Just for the record, I love this opera, not my favourite Strauss(Der Rosenkavalier, Elektra, Salome and Ariadne Auf Naxos I was familiar with much longer) but one with some of Strauss' most heartfelt yet difficult, especially with the Nurse, scores, an imaginative and moving story and an unforgettable final scene both in emotion and in message.
There are two productions on DVD also that I do prefer over this one. One is conducted by Georg Solti and has Eva Marton, Cheryl Studer, Marjana Lipovsek, Thomas Moser and Robert Hale. The other is conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch and has Janis Martin, Luana DeVol, Lipovsek, Peter Seiffert Alan and Titus. Despite the cuts, I do give the slight edge to Sawallisch's.
Visually, it is not too bad. While I am more of a traditionalist myself and would prefer a more ethereal and somewhat more fairy-tale-like approach to the visuals, actually overall, the costumes and sets do fit well within the recording studio concept. The staging however from Cristof Loy is more of a problem. In the first two acts and the very start of Act 3 it is very interesting. The most striking touch was at the start of Act 3 with the idea of Barak and his wife to be in two different caves completely isolated from one another. The first two acts did work, because with this concept it did focus on the relationships and does it very well.
However, it was in the spirit world where it starts to fall apart and sadly it never recovers. At this point there is no drama and the singers sing about the likes of a boat, golden well and the emperor turned to stone but with no clear visuals to go with it. Quite often as well, it does verge on being too disturbing. But the biggest disappointment with this Frau is the ending. In the previous two productions it was very moving and incredibly striking visually. It is staged as a Christmas concert with cheesy handshakes(in slow motion) and kisses, and doesn't seem to be part of the plot which didn't bode well with me. Not only that, but there is a message to the opera and particularly in this scene, the staging doesn't only not engage with this, it practically ignores it.
On the other hand, musically it is outstanding. The orchestral playing sounded very involved, with a lot of grace, lushness and power. The Nurse's music especially is very unforgiving and jagged for both the vocal line and the orchestral writing, but the orchestra makes it sound easy. Christian Thielemann's conducting is not quite as enigmatic as Solti's or as nuanced as Sawallisch's but is still very musically phrased and efficient with little squareness. I also love his hypnotic eyes.
The singing is really exceptional. Evelyn Herlitzius convinces as the Dyer's wife, she is commanding, shows great rapport with Wolfgang Koch(a big part of why their arguments came across as very focused) and doesn't sound as though she is shrieking or wobbling through the music, as much as I was gripped by Marton under Solti I have to admit that vocally she was not at her best. Koch is a sonorous Barak, and is on the same level as Hale and Titus. Stephen Gould's Emperor is imposing and his strong voice does do justice to his long, unkind(from a tenor role point of view) but lovely solos, not as good as Seiffert but better than the underpowered Moser. Michaela Schuster has the superb Lipovsek to compete with, but she does a fine job with the role. She is a great actress, suitably sinister and bitter and she didn't sound taxed by her difficult(considered un-singable in Strauss' time!). The finest performance comes from Anne Schwanewilms, who makes for a more than worthy competitor to Studer and DeVol before her. Her performance as the Empress shares similar characteristics to her incredible Marschallin, a beautiful voice, a noble intelligent stage presence and perhaps the most musical and nuance-attentive of her, Studer and DeVol put together, altogether a gripping performance and I hope to hear and see more from her.
Overall, was mostly interesting and was musically brilliant, but much of the final act and the ending was frustrating. 7/10 Bethany Cox
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