STRAUSS:  Die Frau ohne Schatten
Eleanor Steber (Kaiserin); Set Svanholm (Kaiser); Elisabeth H–ngen (Amme); Christel Goltz (Farberin); Karl Kamann (Barak); Otto Wiener (Geisterbote); Ilona Steingruber (Stimme des Falken); Vienna Philharmonic Chorus & Orch/ Karl B–hm, cond.

GOLDEN MELODRAM GM 6.0006 (2 CDs) (F) (ADD) TT: 100' 22
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Producers of this 1953 live recording warn collectors "the sound quality of these recordings reflect the poor conditions under which the recording was made."  The mono sound, remastered with "20 Star Prism" (whatever that is), really isn't too bad for the time; voices are well projected with the Vienna Phil rather distant, distortion not overly offensive. They also state this Frau has been "a bit shortened"—a gross understatement. The issue is of great interest, but buyers should be aware just what they are getting on two full-price CDs with a total playing time a bit over 100 minutes—about half the playing time of B–hm's 1955 premiere recording which itself is a bit cut.  

Die Frau ohne Schatten wasn't performed very often at the Vienna State Opera before the War. During the second half of the '40s the State Opera had to perform mostly in the Theater an der Wien as its own home had yet to be rebuilt. Frau was considered too grand-scale to be in the smaller theater. With the influence of Karl B–hm, and to renew interest in the work, a concert performance was presented in the Vienna Konzerthaus June 11, 1953  as part of the Festwochen, and that is what is heard on these CDs. The occasion was so successful it led to a new staging of Frau during opening weeks of the rebuilt Staatsoper in November 1955 shortly after which conductor and cast, in their eagerness to have the work recorded, agreed to do so without fee. Decca/London made the recording in Nov./Dec.1955.  The cast featured Hans Hopf as the Emperor, Leonie Rysanek as the Empress, Elisabeth H–ngen as the Nurse, Paul Schoeffler as Barak and Christel Goltz as Barak's Wife. It is an historic recording issued on CD in 1991 (London 425 981, available now only as an import). Produced by Victor Olof and Peter Andry, it's an outstanding example of early stereo recording technique. In the years to follow B–hm continued to perform Frau including a series of performances at the Metropolitan Opera in their 1966 opening season in their new house, a spectacular production with Rysanek, Christa Ludwig, Walter Berry, James King and Irene Dalis as the Nurse.

Although severely cut, the 1953 concert performance gives us the opportunity to hear American soprano Eleanor Steber as the Empress—although not much of the role.  From the first act we have but one line, "Ich will den Schatten küssen, den sie wirft!" in a scene featuring the Dyer's Wife and the Nurse. From Act II we have the Empress' big scene beginning "Sieh - Amme - sieh."  From Act III we hear the scene beginning "Vater, bist dus?"  Set Svanholm doesn't fare much better; we do have his Act II "Falke, Falke, du wiedergefundener" but his big scene from the first act is absent. Act III is the most complete (41:14) including the entire opening scene between Barak and his wife. We then cut to the Empress' "Vater, bist dus?" and continue to the end of the opera. CD notes list 10 tracks for Act III; actually there are 11, the latter marking beginning of the final quartet.

Steber is a magnificent Empress, fearless on the infamous high notes of the demanding role that Rysanek dominated for over two decades, a bit lacking in power on the lower end.  It also is a pleasure to hear Set Svanholm as the Emperor. Goltz, one of the reigning Strauss singers of the time, is an ideal Dyer's Wife, in finer voice here than she was in the commercial recording two years later. H–ngen is a strong nurse, a role she also sang in the early Decca recording. Otto Wiener's Spirit-Messenger is fine; Karl Kamann's Barak is edgy, and the chorus of unborn children are a squally lot indeed.

In addition to the 1953 recording two other B–hm Fraus have been issued.   DG released a performance from 1977 with Rysanek, James King as the Emperor, Ruth Hesse as the Nurse, Walter Berry as Barak and Birgit Nilsson as the Dyer's Wife, recorded in fine stereo (445 325).  Another live B–hm performance, from Salzburg Aug. 16, 1974, has been issued on Opera d'Oro with the same cast except that Christa Ludwig is the Dyer's wife.  This is a spectacular performance, reviewed on this site; it is unfortunate sound quality is quite disappointing (OPD 1218). 

When Herbert von Karajan took over the Vienna Opera he presented Frau perversely making cuts and rearranging some of the scenes. DG, in their Vienna State Opera Live series,  issued a live performance from June 11, 1964, a mono recording with rather muffled sound, with Rysanek, Jess Thomas, Christa Ludwig, Walter Berry, and Grace Hoffman as the Nurse (DG 457 678).  Perhaps Karajan wanted to prove he could do it better than B–hm; he failed—in spite of some glorious singing and magnificent orchestral playing.

Sir Georg Solti's recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, is reportedly the most expensive opera recording ever made. Sessions took place over a long period of time, from March 1989 to October 1991.  Plácido Domingo is a wonderful Emperor, Julia Varady surprisingly effective as the Empress, JosČ van Dam an ideal Barak and Hildegard Behrens acceptable as his wife. The only disappointing lead is Reinhild Runkel as the Nurse who simply cannot cope with her demanding music.  Frau here receives its only totally complete recording—and the engineering is superb (London 436 243). 

 In 1987 EMI made their recording with Cheryl Studer as the Empress, RenČ Kollo as The Emperor, Hanna Schwarz as the Nurse, Alfred Muff as Barak and Ute Vinzing as the Dyer's Wife, with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch (EMI  49074).  Kollo is the weak link in this performance.  The most recent Frau is from Teldec recorded during live 1996 performances in Dresden (Teldec 13156). The cast is promising:  Deborah Voight as the Empress, Ben Heppner The Emperor, Hanna Schwarz (again) as the Nurse, Franz Grundheber as Barak and Sabine Hass as his wife, with the Dresden State Opera Chorus and Orchestra directed by the late Giuseppe Sinopoli. Alas, although Voight and Heppner are quite effective and have the necessary vocal resources for their demanding roles, the remainder of cast disappoints—as does the lethargic direction of Sinopoli. There also is a short inexcusable cut in Act III.

Those who feel Die Frau ohne Schatten is a very special work surely will wish to investigate the new Golden Melodram issue of "bleeding hunks" from the opera in spite of the premium price and dated sound.  It is, indeed, of historic interest—but one wonders why this isn't issued at a more modest price.

R.E.B. (Aug. 2001)