Richard Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten

Thomas, Rysanek, Hoffman, Berry, Ludwig; Vienna State Opera/Karajan (DG 457 678-2))

13 April 2008 3.5 stars

Die Frau ohne SchattenThis performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten has appeared in the catalogue in many guises throughout the years and this re-release on Deutsche Grammophon is just that, appearing exactly as it did on the label ten years ago - same packaging, same remastering. Of course, this is a document of a unique occasion with Herbert von Karajan, at the height of his powers, conducting an unrivalled cast at the Vienna State Opera in 1964.

The performance was planned for the anniversary of Strauss's birth and was destined to go down in legend. As the booklet tells us, Karajan had actually only conducted one Strauss performance during his stint at the Vienna State Opera and had already resigned by the time this production opened. The opera itself was nowhere near as well known then as it is now and still had to wait a couple of years for its premieres in the UK and US, but had actually had a fairly good run of productions in Vienna, where it had been premiered in 1919. The boldness of the decision to stage the work, though, is mitigated by Karajan's infamous decisions regarding the text. It's an opera that is still routinely cut in the theatre but Karajan took it further than any before him or since. One can understand the necessity for some cuts but here we lose – and these are just two of the most surprising examples – half of the watchmen's music at the end of the First Act as well as about half of the Emperor's aria in the second. Not only that, but Karajan reverses the third and fourth scenes in the Second Act in a move that renders an already complicated plot nonsensical: Hofmannsthal's carefully planned structure is torn apart and the subtlety of the characters' motivation, the Empress's in particular, is lost.

Although, of course, being a live recording, one can expect the sound to be a touch rough-and-ready. However, even taking that into account, there are some parts of the recording where the sound of the orchestra is difficult to put up with. Worst is the fact that the microphones often only seem to pick up a handful of players in the string section, so the orchestra sounds occasionally as though it's made up of only a dozen or so players. The violins' liberal use of portamento, for example, sometimes comes across very badly under this sort of close scrutiny. Thankfully, the engineering settles down well for several important passages, such as the exquisitely performed violin solo that introduces the Empress's big third act scene ('Vater, bist du's?'), but many of the louder sections come across poorly.

However, if one can overlook the cuts and the often bad orchestral sound, this set still makes essential listening. Given the singers of the time, it's hard to imagine a better cast. Having sung the role in Karl Böhm's groundbreaking set of the opera in 1954, Leonie Rysanek was already an experienced Empress and continued to dominate in the role for the best part of two more decades. It's generally agreed that recordings rarely captured her voice in all its glory but here, given the circumstances, she and the other soloists have been captured reasonably well. Although she has problems with intonation at some points in the middle of the voice – in her first appearance in Act Three, for example – and makes a hash of the brief imitation of birdsong in her first appearance in Act One, she is compelling when it counts: her scene in the Second Act rises to a thrilling climax; in the Third Act, she is magisterial as she resolves to follow her own path (from 'Aus unsern Taten steigt ein Gericht!') and in 'Vater bist du's?' (although, inevitably, both sections are heavily cut).

Jess Thomas makes the most of the Emperor, a role that's unrewarding at the best of times, but especially so here, with a good half of the Second Act aria cut. He's in excellent voice, though, and is particularly fine in his First Act scene. Grace Hofmann is a dramatically engaging nurse and manages the difficulties of the role and the unusual vocal writing Strauss assigns her convincingly. However, her part, like Thomas's, has been significantly reduced by Karajan's cuts.

In an excellent cast, though, it is Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry – half way through their own fifteen-year marriage at the time – who are truly outstanding. Ludwig's portrayal of Barak's wife, in particular, forces a reappraisal of this role now routinely given to big and sometimes unruly dramatic sopranos. It was Lotte Lehman, arguably the 20th Century's greatest Marschallin, who created the role at the 1919 premiere and Ludwig is very much in the lyric rather than dramatic mould, initially at least. In the First Act, she plays the part with nobility rather than hysteria and goes a long way to ingratiate her with the listener and to make one sympathise with her complicated position. Vocally, she is beyond reproach. Berry, as Barak, is every bit as impressive in a role that's a gift to a bass-baritone of his quality.

The luxurious casting extends to the smaller roles, with appearances by Fritz Wunderlich and Lucia Popp, among others. On the whole, Karajan conducts an outstanding account of the score, lean and powerful. Admittedly, with the cuts he's made, there are fewer demands on his ability to pace the large structures, but what's there only reinforces the frustration that he didn't use a fuller text. He controls the drama carefully and brings some wonderful playing from the Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera. There are several occasions where the quality of the orchestral playing – vouched for in several extracts of contemporary reviews included in the booklet – manages to shine through the engineering: they play wonderfully to accompany Barak's lyrical outbursts; they shimmer seductively as they conjure up the jewels and servants to tempt his wife in Act One; and they are thrilling in the final quartet, led wonderfully by Berry.

In sum, this is undeniably an invaluable record of what must have been a thrilling occasion. Unsurprisingly, the fact that it's so heavily cut, not to mention hampered by the very 'live' sound, means that it cannot be recommended as a first choice. Even given those caveats, though, the combination of this cast in its prime and Karajan at the helm makes it difficult to resist.

By Hugo Shirley