Superb Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Staatsoper Berlin

GermanyGermany Strauss, Die Frau ohne Schatten: Staatsopernchor, Staatskapelle Berlin / Simone Young (conductor), Unter den Linden, Berlin, 5.10.2018. (JMI)

Die Frau Ohne Schatten © H. J. Michel

Cast included:

Empress – Camilla Nylund
Barak’s Wife – Elena Pankratova
Nurse – Michaela Schuster
Barak – Michael Volle
Emperor – Simon O’Neill
Keikobad Messenger – Boaz Daniel
Voice of the Falcon – Slávka Zámecniková


Direction – Claus Guth
Sets and Costumes – Christian Schmidt
Lighting – Olaf Winter
Videos – Andi A. Müller

This was an outstanding evening: first-rate musical direction, a notable vocal cast and a magnificent stage production. I first saw this staging in Berlin last year when it was done at the Schiller Theater; the opera company was performing there while Unter den Linden was being renovated. It works even better here than in the smaller Schiller Theater and, in addition, the acoustics are better in the company’s traditional house.

This co-production of La Scala and Covent Garden had its premiere six years ago in Milan and was done two years later in London. It was an unequivocal triumph in both cities. Indeed, Claus Guth and his team have created a superb staging, and the singers were beautifully directed: he is definitely one of the greatest stage directors today.

Guth conceives this strange opera as a dream (or rather a nightmare) of the Empress, the character who gives title to the opera. The stage consists of curved wooden side walls, while the center is occupied by a rotating stage (of which Claus Guth is fond); this allows for quick changes of scene, which are numerous in the opera. The sets are well suited and attractive, as are the costumes, the lighting work is remarkable, and there are impressive video projections.

All the fantastic elements of the plot are part of the protagonist’s dream vision. As noted above, Guth’s expert stage direction makes this a truly exceptional work. In particular, I would cite the performance of the Empress, who is always on stage, and the initial scenes in Barak’s house. In short, it’s a magnificent production from start to finish.

Conductor Simone Young’s reading deserves to be highlighted. When I saw the production last year, the conductor was Zubin Mehta, and I prefer Ms. Young’s interpretation. She was very careful and had some truly inspired moments which made one really appreciate Richard Strauss’s marvelous music. Staatskapelle Berlin, one of the world’s best orchestras, was remarkable, and both the Staatsopernchor and the Kinderchor did a fine job.

The Empress or Kaiserin is ‘the Woman without a Shadow’, which symbolizes that she has no possibility of getting pregnant. The part was sung by Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund, who also filled the role at the premiere of the production in Berlin. As then, her performance was fully convincing; it was one of the best performances that I remember from this singer.

Barak’s Wife was interpreted by Russian soprano Elena Pankratova, whom I had previously heard in the part. I have found her much improved and more convincing than in the past: her voice is working perfectly, and she is able to convey emotion, which is not at all easy.

The Nurse was once again played by mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster, an authentic specialist in the character. Her stage performance was irreproachable, and vocally she is well suited to the part, although her voice has lost some freshness and she is a bit tight at the top of the range.

Michael Volle’s Barak was impressive from beginning to end. He has a spectacular voice and his singing was both noble and expressive. I cannot think of a better Barak, and he made this character the center of attention in the house.

I am not revealing any secret by saying that Richard Strauss seems to have hated tenors: what he writes for them to sing could have been composed by their enemies. A perfect example of that is the character of the Emperor, who has a devilish, if not impossible, tessitura. Simon O’Neill exhibited a certain tightness in the impossibly high part of the score.

In the secondary characters, baritone Boaz Daniel was good as the Keikobad Messenger, and soprano Evelin Novak was a correct interpreter of the Guardian of the Temple. Slávka Zámecniková did well in the Voice of the Falcon. Tenor Jun-Sang Han was adequate but somewhat tight as the Apparition of a Young Man. Barak’s brothers were covered well by Karl-Michael Ebner, Adam Kutny and Bartolomeo Stasch, as was the Voice from Above sung by Natalia Skrycka.

The audience gave an enthusiastic reception to the artists, with shouts of enthusiasm for all, and for Michael Volle in particular.

José M. Irurzun

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