STRAUSS: Die Frau ohne Schatten
An important release for those who love Strauss' collaboration with Hugo von Hoffmanstahl in this grandiose "fantasy opera" -- but, unfortunately, don't get your expectations too high. This is the only issue that offers the "dream cast" and conductor that made the 1966 Metropolitan Opera production during their first two years in their new house the hottest ticket in New York. It is rumored the Met wanted to issue their live performance in their historic series but could not do so as one of the minor singers in the cast inexplicably refused permission; this, perhaps, will be his sole claim to fame. Anyway, if you want the combination of Rysanek, Ludwig, King, Berry and B–hm on the podium this new release is the only way to get it. Ruth Hesse is the Nurse. You can find Rysanek, King, Berry and B–hm on DGG's live Vienna State Opera recording of 1977, but Ludwig was replaced by Birgit Nilsson (totally different but equally impressive) and Hesse again was the Nurse; this set is discontinued but Frau aficionados surely will wish to own it if they can find it (DGG 445 325). You can also find the star quartet (with Grace Hoffman as the Nurse) on another discontinued DGG set (457 678) with Herbert von Karajan conducting, a Vienna State Opera performance, this from June 11, 1964, not too well recorded and cursed by Karajan's perverse cuts (more than usual) and reorganization of scenes.
Of enormous interest is another discontinued set, the first recording made of the "complete" Frau, recorded in 1955 after a series of Vienna State Opera performances. The cast features Rysanek, Hans Hopf as the Emperor, Christel Goltz as the Dyer's Wife, Paul Schoeffler as Barak, and Elisabeth H–ngen's superb Nurse, with B–hm conducting. Everyone involved wanted to record it and did so without fee (can you imagine that happening today?). Sonically the set is astounding, an superb example of early stereo. This is a vintage Frau worth seeking out (London 425 981).
Another Frau essential in any Strauss opera collection as it is the only currently available complete recording is London's with Sir Georg Solti conducting, reportedly the most expensive recording ever made. Recorded in 1989 and 1991, it was a major project of the Hungarian conductor whose love of the opera is apparent throughout. The cast is somewhat disappointing although adequate, quite removed from the "dream cast." Julia Varady is surprisingly effective as the Empress, Plácido Domingo sounds a touch out of place as the Emperor, Hildegard Behrends, towards the end of her career, is adequate as the Dyer's Wife, JosČ van Dam, also at the end of his career, is not at his best as Barak. Unfortunate that Behrends and van Dam didn't record their roles 15 years earlier. Reinhild Runkel, with even more lack of control, is a squally Nurse. However, the recording boasts the Vienna Philharmonic, and it plays gloriously. Sonics are superb, an example of the label's finest efforts (London 436 243). Another uncut recording, made in 1987, features Cheryl Studer, RenČ Kollo, Uta Vinzing and Alfred Muff with Hanna Schwarz as the Nurse, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch with forces of the Bavarian Radio (EMI 49074). The only major interest here is Studer's Empress and conducting of Sawallisch; the set has been unavailable for some years. I have yet to hear the recording conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli
The new Opera d'Oro set preserves one of the great performances of Frau. Everyone is in top form. Voices are well-balanced. The problem is orchestral sound which is rather opaque, with insufficient impact for brass and percussion. The sound is not unlistenable; with a performance like this it is sad sonic quality isn't better. Liner notes are minimal; there is a brief synopsis of the plot, but that's it, and no timings are provided. In track 7, CD 2, at 2:35 there is a slight editing error, perhaps in the original source. Collectors deserve better -- however this issue is super-budget price -- so many may wish to have it in spite of its aural deficiencies. Let us hope eventually the Met will be able to issue their incandescent performance with the same leading singers and conductor.
R.E.B. (May 2000)