The first work of the evening is Die Frau Ohne Schatten (“The Woman Without a Shadow”). Strauss began composition in 1911, working hand-in-hand with his frequent librettist Hugo von Hoffmansthall, who used a variety of sources, ranging from several works by Goethe to Grimm’s fairy tales and portions of the Arabian Nights set of tales. But the composition became an extended effort, and was not completed until 1915. Then, as Europe was in the midst of war, the piece would not be produced until 1919. When this finally occurred, it met with mixed reaction. The libretto was complicated and highly symbolic (something that Hoffmansthal had fought to maintain in the face of attempted changes by Strauss), the score was written for a 164 piece orchestra, and the staging is complicated and difficult, even for modern opera companies (one scene calls for children singing out of a frying pan). Moreover, the opera calls for five top singers in the primary roles and first-rate singers in the secondary roles, something which is prohibitively expensive.
Yet, even with all these cons weighing against the work, the music itself ranks among Strauss’ most compelling works. Strauss used a similar style of musical dreamscape to that which he achieved with Der Rosenkavalier (also written in 1911), replacing the waltzes and neo-classical staging with a sort of Wagnerian heft that few other composers could hope to achieve. Yet the music was distinctly that of Richard Strauss, carrying stylistic tags that one hears in many of his works, operatic and otherwise. So, while the opera is rarely staged, it is musically one of his best.
Tonight’s recording is a 1988 edition that features Rene Kollo, Cheryl Studer, Hanna Schwarz, Andreas Schmidt, and Alfred Muff, with Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra & Chorus.
Part of our interest here on Opera Overnight is to illustrate some of the interesting history behind the form of music that we call opera. Tonight we have one of the earliest surviving examples of opera, Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. L’Orfeo was written in 1607 for a court performance during the annual Carnival at Mantua. It is not the first actual opera – the first composition that is considered to have been opera was Dafne by Jacopo Peri, a lost work that was written in 1597. It is not even the earliest surviving opera. But it is the earliest surviving opera that is still regularly performed.
Tonight’s recording is a 2004 recording that features Ian Bostridge, Natalie Dessay, Oatruzua Ciofi, Alice Coote, Christopher Maltman, Veronique Gens, and Paul Agnew, leading a large cast. Emmanuelle Haïm directs Le Concert D’Astrée, Les Sacqueboutiers, European Voices