on 11 August 2013
I have loved this opera for about 30 years and this performance especially for 25 of them, first when I bought it as cassette tapes. I have had four other versions, one from the 60s (amazingly heavy-handed conducting in those days) and the other three more recent.
I think this is unique in catching the passion of the drama. There are many phenomenal moments but especially the scene in Act Two, where Birgit Nilsson so desperately tries to communicate with Barak about where he is failing to understand her, is indelibly etched in my mind. Boehm builds the turbulent orchestral part immaculately, Nilsson sings with exactly the mixture of pride, pain, defiance and despair that is needed at "Aber es geht ein Maulesel", Berry's reply is spot on (his voice reminding me of Fischer-Dieskau in its great maturity), and then Nilsson is astounding at "Um Nahrung" all the way to "die doch anderswo, anders daheim". This is the spiritual crux of the whole piece, and all the performers give it everything. I know of no other version that captures it so vitally.
I must not omit praise for Leonie Rysanek, who blows me away as the Empress, nor for James King, whose voice was in its true prime here. The whole production is a marvel and I would absolutely be glad to know if anyone can truly tell me anyone else ever did it better.
Such is my affection for this recording that it would be easy for me to write an effusive review praising it beyond measure ("surely not?" I hear you gasp!).
The artists involved, the orchestra, the venue and the work itself all hold a special place in my affections, but I'm going to be objective about it and disregard my predilections.
Recorded live in 1977 and re-mastered in 1985, the recorded sound is very fine, capturing a true impression of a performance heard from good seats in the "Parkett "of the Wiener Staatsoper. The balance favours the voices somewhat, but the sumptuous scoring is revealed in great detail and the climactic moments have all the necessary overwhelming power.
For many, Karl Böhm was the "Compleat Straussian" and he championed this work throughout his lifetime. His approach here is more indulgent in the best sense of the word than his usual no-nonsense approach might lead us to expect, and he relaxes his usual forward momentum time after time to allow the extra element of beauty to be extracted. His handling of the prelude to the Emperor's monologue in Act 2 is a thing of almost excruciating beauty, assisted by the exquisite cello playing of the legendary Emmanuel Brabec, and time after time he "indulges" the music in a way we don't expect.
The orchestra plays magnificently, though there are a few moments of imprecision in dense passages, and one or two "nearly" blips in the horns-as ever with this work.
The casting is a dream one comprising the greatest names in Strauss singing from the Golden Age of 60's and early 70's-but this was recorded in the late 70's and it is important not to fall into the trap of hearing these great artists as they were, not as they ARE in this performance.
All the main protagonists were in the autumn of their careers, though to be fair for most it was more a case of an Indian Summer.
Nilsson catches the harridan, shrewish qualities of Barak's wife to perfection, equally well her terror and final kindness and humanity-another sly allusion to his wife Pauline by Strauss. At times she thrills, is never less than convincing-but her voice has lost its steely radiance, and is for much the performance more of a dull metallic glow-there is evidence of vocal "greyness", and she does tire in the final act. Similarly Walter Berry is not so secure in his legato as Barak, and there is more barking than we are used to from him. He too tires, and his Act 3 lyrical passage "Mir anvertraut..." is slightly spoiled by a vocal tremor and is somewhat breathless.
James King is a fine Emperor, but he struggles at the top of the stave -and also tires by Act 3. Heppner and Jess Thomas fare better-I do not care for Domingo, and René Kollo for Sawallisch is surprisingly great.
Rysanek's Empress gives us some truly thrilling moments-her "Ich will nicht!" in Act 3 is a heart stopping moment, but her long career singing heavier roles such as Salome has taken its toll on her lower register, which is pretty steady but not beautiful.
She is eclipsed by Voigt and in particular Studer for sheer beauty of tone, though not for drama.
A real problem for me is the Nurse of Ruth Hesse. This long and arguably most difficult role in the work must grip the listener, and I find Hesse to have uningratiating tone which I don't care for.
Furthermore, she drifts off pitch on more than one occasion-but this is a live performance, and let's face it-it happens. Hanna Schwarz is my ideal in this role.
The supporting cast is excellent, except for the Voice of the Falcon which wobbles alarmingly, and the offstage choruses are very well and atmospherically caught, the Unborn Children being particularly beautiful.
This work requires stamina from cast and audience alike, and that Böhm tackled it all at age 81 is remarkable in itself, but inevitably with live performances there are cuts.
In this work, Strauss indulged his collaborator Hofmannsthal by not excising his plot and philosophical excesses, and ever the practical man of the theatre he immediately sanctioned cuts after the first performances.
These are several cuts in the nurse's outpourings, and the whole scene in Act 3 where Barak and the Frau blunder about in a magic mist unable to find each other, and are hindered by the nurse's covert intervention is discarded (it's very difficult to stage convincingly without becoming risible).
This results in a loss of about 24 minutes of music at these sorts of tempi-but if you don't know the work in full, it does not hinder or render the drama incomprehensible in any way.
With all these caveats, this performance doesn't sound that good does it?
This recording is the sum of its parts-and my cavils matter not one iota because the sense of occasion, the commitment of the artists and the obvious love for the work render this an incomparable experience-and frankly, I would rather have this entire cast back today than endure some of the caterwauling that currently passes for great singing !
What I'm trying to say is that these artists past their best surpass most current artists in the same roles by a considerable margin.
Until I belatedly bought the EMI Sawallisch recording of the complete work, which I now regard as the recording "primus inter pares", I owned the Karajan and earlier Böhm in Mono, and Keilberth, Solti and Sinopoli in stereo. All have their merits, but this was the set that you could not prise out of my clutched hand. This remains the case, but I have the Sawallisch clutched in my other hand-for in all honesty, it is marginally better sung and performed than this one, is complete, beautifully played and recorded and Sawallisch matches Böhm in conducting, and I commend you to my review thereof.
The special qualities of this recording make it a must for all Strauss lovers, and though we must not extol the virtues of the participants without taking account of some shortcomings, the artistry conveyed is of a special and irreplaceable nature.
The recording would benefit no doubt from re-mastering-"The Originals" would be its ideal home-but its qualities are such that it warrants an unlimited stars recommendation. Unique. Stewart Crowe.
I have ten versions of this wonderful opera on my shelves and don't know a bad one. Whether this is the best is a subjective decision and I readily acknowledge that several of the great artists here were past their best years but that does not invalidate the cumulative impact of this live recording, which is immensely vivid and touching, the performances informed by the singers' long stage experience and a technique which allows them to defy the years.
I happened to listen to this back to back with Böhm's pioneering studio recording from twenty-two years earlier, in 1955. Of course the astonishing thing is that we hear the same Empress in both versions,and apart from slight clouding and curdling of the lower regions of her voice, Leonie Rysanek remains astonishingly intense and able to let rip with soaring top notes. So large a voice needed a counterpart and Birgit Nilsson in her late fifties still had the amplitude and "cutting edge" required to cut through Strauss's dense orchestration, even if a little of the gleam had faded. She is simply stunning in first her defiance of Barak then in the moment of her realisation that she loves him. But for me - and here I differ from my friend and fellow reviewer Stewart Crowe - the biggest improvement over 1955 is Ruth Hesse as the Nurse; she has the heft and bite to convey real malice where I found Elisabeth Höngen eerie but a littler pale. One Peter Wimberger - as singer unknown to me - is a big improvement over Kurt Böhme as the Spirit Messenger; he is much steadier and nobler of tone. James KIng strains a little and occasionally a bleat escapes his larynx but generally he copes manfully with the desperately changing tessitura of the role of Emperor and is especially impressive in his Act II - aria, can I call it? - anyway, the moment when he doubts the Empress's fidelity to him. Walter Berry has the ideal vocal lay-out for Barak - warm, kindly and powerful when that's required, Understandably, all the singers flag occasionally in such a huge, long sing as this and in truth the final great quartet is a bit ragged - nor do the two sopranos finish together! - but their endurance is superhuman by modern standards and all the big moments make their mark under Böhm's unerring direction. He was always at his best in live Strauss and he presides over playing from the Vienna State Opera Orchestra which is both meltingly poetic and truly stirring, especially in the Transformation interludes. The end of Act II, when the Nurse invokes "higher powers" gave me goosebumps. (Incidentally, I note that in both recordings Böhm "cheats" by supplementing the five unborn children with an extra singer, rounding them up to half a dozen!)
The sound is remarkably clean, clear full and well balanced for a live recording. I enthusiastically endorse it as it could easily be your first or only set, confident as I am that it conveys the authentic Straussian thrill of what some aficionados, with apologies to "Der Rosenkavalier", consider his greatest work.
on 10 September 2006
For someone like myself who has heard every note Nilsson sang on recordings, this CD of Die Frau is beyond description. Nilsson always posed a challenge to sound engineers. It was always difficult to hear her true beauty on recordings. When this CD came out, I was smilling when she began to sing. This is exactly how she sounded in San Francisco on September 30, 1980 when I heard her perform this role.
I had another opportunity to see and hear her. The place was Wilmington, Delaware. The date was April 13, 1988. She was at the Wilmington Opera House to conduct a master class. Many of her students were from the Academy of the Vocal Arts and The Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. In all honesty, I learned more about Nilsson on this day than I did In 1980.
At the end of the program, she invited people to ask her some questions. One of the most notable ones was the one about her most difficult singing role. She said that all of them posed their own challenges. But the man was persistent. I was seated in the front row and I thought I could offer her some help. I said softly," Die Frau?" She looked at me, and then looked at the audience with somewhat vacant and inward searching eyes and replied, "Yes. I would have to say Die Frau Ohne Schatten. When I first learned it, it was so difficult to learn on the piano. The range of octaves and the tempi were very confusing. But when I began rehearsals with the orchestra, everything fell into place."
In short, if you have heard other renditions of Die Frau Ohne Schatten and were disapointed with the sound or the bizzare plot, don't worry. Buy this recording as fast as you can before it vanishes.