San Francisco Opera’s new production of Richard Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten” is an explosive three-plus hours of starry singing and orchestral playing, and bright visuals housed in David Hockney’s dazzling sets. Strauss’ fairy-tale opera, his longest and most complex, comes with a devilish plot about a half-spirit, half-human empress who has no shadow (the opera’s title in English is “The Woman Without a Shadow”) and must find one within three days to save her husband from being turned into a stone statue.
“Frau” is rarely done because it calls for a supersize orchestra of 105 musicians and an even greater number of singers and dancers. Most importantly, it makes huge demands on the principal singers who unwind the gnarly plot. Strauss found it difficult, too. He called it his “problem opera” and it took six years working with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal to get it finally finished in 1919, the world having gone to war as it was being written. It has been staged only six times in the company’s hundred years—one of which was the American premiere in 1959. It is said that Karl Böhm agreed to conduct if the pit was substantially enlarged—it was.
Donald Runnicles, San Francisco Opera’s former music director, braves the immensity and intensity of the work, conducting with heft and passion, and with a remarkable balancing of stage and pit, and although some orchestral covering is impossible to avoid, his command of all the forces is superb. Every drop of drama in the score is brought forth in vibrant color—one wonders at times if there will be any survivors.
Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund, who made her debut here as Elsa in “Lohengrin,” presents the role of The Empress in lofty, light tones until the final act, when she comes into her own, singing her newly gained humanity in brilliant, silvery lines.
The Empress’ partner in crime is The Nurse, with whom she attempts to steal a shadow. American soprano Linda Watson in her company debut sings the role in a rough, almost demonic, voice as the two confront the wife of a working-class dyer named Barak to ask for her shadow, promising her young lovers and riches in return.
Barak’s Wife, who has no other name, is ambivalent about her feelings for her husband, attracted to the prizes offered, and she consents.
Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as the Barak’s unhappy partner sings her discontent with heat and fury; her large and multi-colored voice commands the stage at every turn. Stemme, who has sung Brünnhilde in a full Wagner “Ring” here as well as other roles, is the third and most gloriously engaged in this trio of divas, a rarity on any opera stage. (At the end of the June 4 opening performance, Stemme was awarded the San Francisco Opera Medal.)
British tenor David Butt Philip is a crisp-toned Emperor and Danish baritone Johan Reuter sings the role of Barak in warm and glowing tones.
“Frau” has been called a “bizarre fever dream” and in some ways, Hockney’s designs fit the bill. The set, first seen at Covent Garden in 1992, has bright flowing waters; dark, somewhat menacing gardens; and arches and structures that move like giant toys, almost singing as the opera progresses.
The late Ian Falconer’s costumes are by turns fantastical, royally jeweled, campy and Roy Rallo’s direction is well-defined and cohesive.
“Die Frau ohne Schatten’’ should not be missed by opera fans and theatergoers alike. It is a rare chance to hear Strauss’ most emotionally probing, visually charged opera, with possibly the best living cast in a superb production.
“Die Frau ohne Schatten” continues at 7 p.m. June 10, June 20, June 23 and June 28 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $26 to $464. The June 20 performance will stream live, tickets cost $27.50. For more information, call (415) 864-3330 or visit sfopera.com.