Now there are two: Solti and Sawallisch. In most aspects, this wonderful Sawallisch production clearly trumps Sir Georg Solti's recorded just two months earlier. First, Sawallisch's cast sings expressively, accurately, and musically without the heavy sweating and harsh vocalism that pervades Solti's. Secondly, Sawallisch claims Die Frau his favorite opera, and his enthusiasm is everywhere evident. Solti's reading seems dispassionate, workmanlike, and oddly colorless in spite of the ravishing sound of the Vienna Philharmonic. Sawallisch and the Bavarians aim at lightness, clarity, nuance, and color; while the pace can be a bit too fast (e.g. the final bars of Act III), Sawallisch's expressiveness is welcome alternative to Solti's flatland reading. Finally, and most importantly, the soloists here are stronger, more balanced, and in greater control of the opera's extreme demands. In particular, Janis Martin's Dyer's Wife sings this tortuous role with élan aural pleasantness in spite of her shrewish character's persona. By not sounding like a harridan (as Eva Marten does in Solti's), we are more likely to believe her redeeming qualities. As the Empress, Luana DeVol's transparent voice is immediately perceived in her opening moments: those athletic arabesques, set in an uncomfortably high tessitura, indicating the Empress's ethereal fragility, are sung pitch perfect - a rather unique accomplishment as this role goes. Alan Titus's Barak, while relaxed, is beautifully sonorous. Peter Seiffert's Emperor may be the best interpretation since Rene Kollo who practically owned the role a couple of decades ago. Marjana Lipovsek, the Nurse here and on Solti's disc, is phenomenal in coursing through the jagged and unforgiving barbwire music that Strauss sadistically throws at this villainess.
The production by Ennosuke Ichikawa is a hybrid of Kabuki and Western staging. Characters from Ethereal and Middle worlds (Messenger, Empress, Emperor, Nurse) are in Kabuki dress and move and gesture accordingly. Bara k, his wife and brothers, representing humanity, looking more like Afghan nomads, seem rather smaller than life. The intersection of their fates, juxtaposing the detached idealism of Kabuki with the all-to-human lives of the Baraks, provides yet another way of unifying the concepts of Light and Dark in von Hofmannsthal vision. In an Eastern setting, Strauss's leaping grace notes, which abundantly adorn the Nurse's role, now seem fittingly Japanese-like.
The few drawbacks in this new DVD might compel some prefer the Solti: Sawallisch takes cuts throughout, while Solti insists (rightly) on an unabridged performance. The timings indicate about a twenty-minute difference. Also, the DTS post-processing on this disc is not as vibrant as on Solti's. Finally, the Vienna Philharmonic is the more polished machine. In a perfect world one should buy Sawallisch's first, and if you really love the work, purchase Solti's, as an indulgence, for a note-complete performance.