When the Royal Opera announced their 2013-14 season last year, this new production of Strauss's too rarely performed masterpiece was the highlight for me. However, from the outset I had my doubts – not about the musical team which promised to be (and was) superb, but about the production, judging from reviews of performances at La Scala. Fortunately it isn't a production to make one want to howl with frustration. It's undeniably a very carefully thought out interpretation which can (though I think with some exceptions) be fitted successfully to the text. But as will be explained, there is a price to be paid, and in my view it is too high.
But let us start with the really fine things. Musically this is a remarkable performance. One of the reasons Die Frau is rarely performed is because of the difficulty of assembling the necessary vocal talent. The only previous time I saw it, a Mariinsky Theatre production at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011, the voices were not in the top class, though one forgave shortcomings because the production and orchestral drive were so spell-binding. This time the Royal Opera House has achieved remarkable things – there isn't a weak link in this cast. Johan Reuter (Barak) and Elena Pankratova (Barak's Wife) make the strongest impression in the first two acts – their emotional punch in terms of the narrative is least weakened by the production and thus the fine singing and the direction are in harmony. Emily Magee's Empress commits herself fully and convincingly to the production (which requires a lot of her), and her singing particularly in the taxing third act is again outstanding, but for reasons which we'll come on to the production contrives to reduce the emotional connection. Perhaps the mark of greatness to all three of them is their capacity not simply to power through the heavier passages but to sing with precision softness in the more intimate sections. Johan Botha (Emperor) I found less fresh voiced than in 2010's Tannhauser but he still holds forth strongly and ringingly. Michaela Schuster's Nurse has great presence and much of her singing has great character but it isn't a voice quite so much to my taste. The supporting roles were all impeccably taken, many of them by members of the House's Jette Parker Young Artists Programme. In the pit the Royal Opera Orchestra under Bychkov were on magnificent form. The richness of sound from all corners of the orchestra, but perhaps especially the string solos, was memorable. Bychkov doesn't approach the work with quite the white heat intensity of Gergiev in Edinburgh but he reads the overall shape far more convincingly (particularly in the Third Act), and the many intimate passages have a beauty here of a far superior order.