Strauss’ Imposing ‘Frau’ Steps Out Of Shadows Into Spectacle Of Lights

Camilla Nylund as the Empress and David Butt Philip as the Emperor in the San Francisco Opera production of ‘Die Frau ohne Schatten’ (Photos by Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera)

SAN FRANCISCO — Given how rarely the work is performed, it’s no surprise that San Francisco Opera’s centennial-season production of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s fairytale morality opera Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow) is drawing attendees from at least 42 U.S. states, as well as from abroad. Few will likely leave disappointed due to the many glories of the production, seen at its opening matinee in the War Memorial Opera House on June 4.

The Wagnerian-length opera, which runs three hours and 50 minutes, calls for an orchestra so vast that not every opera pit can accommodate it. In San Francisco’s case, two previous enlargements of its orchestra pit still barely contained conductor Donald Runnicles’ 96 musicians.

Linda Watson as the Nurse, Nina Stemme as the Dyer’s Wife, and Camilla Nylund as the Empress

David Hockney’s fantastic set design of many colors, first unveiled at the Royal Opera House in London in 1992, is delightful. Thanks to Justin A. Partier’s masterful revival of Alan Burrett’s original lighting, the rate at which colors grew in intensity and changed inspired awe. Although it’s impossible to enumerate the multi-hued splendors and fantastical architecture of the production’s many scene changes, the countless vertical bands of bright colors in the home of the dyer Barak will forever sing in this critic’s memory.

The set is perfect for a fantasy, concocted at what became the end of the Age of Emperors and Empresses, about the struggle of those above and within this earthly realm to achieve happiness through marriage and childbirth. Over 100 years after its Dresden premiere with future rivals Maria Jeritza and Lotte Lehmann as the Empress and Dyer’s Wife, respectively, the story resonates for modern audiences.

In some ways, Frau might serve as a morality play for those who agree with its premises and have the ability to follow its occasionally unfathomable plot. (San Francisco Opera performed the version cut by conductor Karl Böhm and sanctioned by Strauss himself, but it’s doubtful that restoring those cuts would have made the convoluted tale any easier to comprehend.) When the five unborn children, symbolized by little fishes, cry for their mother as they are thrown into a frying pan and set on the fire, it’s not hard to imagine someone declaring, “See, I told you so.” Nonetheless, given how explicit the opera is about what happens when men and women take to the same bed, it’s doubtful Frau would pass muster as suitable for family audiences in today’s censorial climate.

David Butt Philip as the Emperor

Strauss’ vocal lines for the opera’s three female leads are so demanding that few singers can negotiate them successfully. Here, Linda Watson’s Nurse was most successful. Once a notable Brünnhilde, Watson triumphantly melded the steadiness and strength of a prime Wagnerian with the harshness of tone and lowering of range that have come with age. It’s a voice ideal for the Empress’ evil nurse — or Clytemnestra in Elektra or Herodias in Salome — and Watson wielded it with relish. Allied with facial expressions appropriately exaggerated by the black diagonal marks of Jeanna Parham’s excellent makeup, she was magnificent.

As the Empress, Camilla Nylund looked wonderful, moved with regal dignity, and, when appropriate, radiated compassion. Although every note of the role was within her grasp, and she fearlessly negotiated its frighteningly huge multi-octave plunges and leaps with glistening tone, her vocal production came at the cost of an intrusive wobble that extended from the middle to all but the highest notes in her considerable range.

During the final curtain calls, Nina Stemme, who sang the Dyer’s Wife, received the company’s highest award, the San Francisco Opera Medal, from general director Matthew Shilvock. Stemme coped fairly well in Act I, placing her highest notes carefully. But by the final act, her tone had grown shrill, and her final high note devolved into an inappropriate scream. Blessed with an instrument that remains admirably steady, with narrow vibrato, the time is ripe for this treasured artist to explore new repertoire.

Camilla Nylund as the Empress, Nina Stemme as the Dyer’s Wife, Johan Rauter as Barak, and David Butt Philip as the Emperor

For the two male leads, however, Frau proved a triumph. As the Dyer Barak, Johan Reuter only grew in magnificence as the opera progressed. His voice was gorgeous, strong, even, and fully up to the task. Every aspect of his character as a hard-working, devoted, loyal, and extremely compassionate man came to the fore. His memorable outburst when, to his wife at least, he finally proved his masculinity was only one of countless instances when he demonstrated great artistry.

As the Emperor, David Butt Philip seemed equally tireless. His voice and appearance are youthful and attractive, and the way he carries himself is a joy to watch. How wonderful to encounter an Emperor who does not strain on high. Perhaps other heldentenors create a more self-absorbed and selfish character, but I, for one, was grateful for what Philip gave.

Runnicles was ideal as a conductor fearless of propulsion yet respectful of his singers and the more tender parts of the score. The cataclysmic outburst that ends Act II virtually knocked many audience members out of their seats. Bravo to him, chorus director John Keene, and everyone who sang onstage. That includes the 10 singing Adler Fellows who study as San Francisco Opera apprentice artists. To single out but one, Olivia Smith seemed perfectly suited to be The Voice of the Falcon.

Director Roy Rallo must be credited for the superb acting and staging seen at the opener. Everyone moved as a singing actor, with countless opportunities for operatic expression explored.