The recording of Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten made at the Salzburg Festival in 1992 is very much Sir Georg Solti’s show. The conducting is superb and the Vienna Philharmonic, of course, respond for Solti. From the opening, shattering cords through the various orchestral interludes to the final ensemble and chorus Solti is utterly convincing in his command of tempi and dynamics.
By and large too, the cast is of high quality. Cheryl Studer is majestic as the Empress, combining power and delicacy to great effect. Perhaps even better is the Nurse of Marjana Lipovšek. Hers is a great performance from both the singing and acting points of view aided by the absence of the customary Act 3 cuts. She is a truly insidious and malevolent presence without ever becoming unmusical. The men are better than decent too. Robert Hale’s Barak is more lyrical than most without ever being insipid and Thomas Moser is a characterful and pleasant toned Emperor. There’s even an appearance by young Bryn Terfel as the Spirit Messenger. The fly in the ointment though is Eva Marton’s Wife. The vocal decline that ended her career is very evident. She’s strident, even “shrieky” and just not very pleasant to listen to. It’s a real shame.
The production, by Götz Friedrich, is fairly conventional. The Spirit World is quite abstract and rather beautiful and the Human World consists mostly of things at crazy angles. Much of the time though it’s very dark and quite hard to decipher. There don’t seem to be any big ideas, though there are some striking visuals. This is probably a good thing as there’s more than enough to keep most people a bit perplexed in von Hofmannsthal’s libretto! There are occasional odd touches. The rather unprepossessing lover who is procured for Barak’s wife is accompanied by a pair of dwarfs, for instance. Basically, it’s a relatively straightforward, conventional approach nothing like as weird or intense as Friedrich’s studio shot films of Strauss pieces.
Video direction is by Brian Large. It’s typical. Lots of close ups and in the last act he seems to have got bored with the rather dark, static stage goings on and reaches into the video bag of tricks for split screen shots, superpositions and the like. Normally that drives me nuts but here, at times, it’s so dark that I have some sympathy. The 16:9 picture quality is just about OK. OK for a DVD of its time but not comparable to modern HD recordings. Also, for some reason it wouldn’t actually display full screen on my system and I ended up with it letterboxed and pillar boxed; whatever display settings I tried. The sound options are digitally reprocessed DTS 5.1 and the original stereo. The latter is much better and really quite good. The surround option is quite muddy. Subtitle options are English, French, Italian, Spanish and Chinese. There are no extras but the booklet contains a useful essay and a cued synopsis.
There’s some really good music making on this disk but the production is a bit dull and technically it’s showing its age. I would imagine that most people would prefer Gergiev’s St. Petersburg recording which is also very good musically but with much higher production and technical values. And, obligatory grumble, I still regret that the 2013 run of Wernicke’s production at the Met was not recorded. I understand the reasons but I’m not convinced they were impossible to overcome.