Though the city of San Francisco has seen better days, the San Francisco Opera is enjoying a banner season as it celebrates its centenary this year. On stage at the War Memorial Opera House, the end-of-season blockbuster was David Hockney’s 1992 production of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten.
The opera’s titular “woman without a shadow” is the unnamed Empress. She is the daughter of a mortal and the god Keikobad, who does not appear in the opera but has an overpowering presence felt in the opening chords of the score and in the occasional appearance of his messenger. The Empress, married to the mortal Emperor, cannot cast a shadow, a symbolic reference to her inability to bear children. If the Empress fails to acquire the ability to cast a shadow within three days, Keikobad will take the Empress back into his realm and turn the Emperor to stone. With the company of her divine nurse, who secretly wants the Empress to fail so she can return to the spirit world, the Empress descends to the mortal world, where the duo attempts to convince the wife of the poor dyer Barak to part with her shadow in exchange for a life of pleasure. Despising her husband, the Dyer’s Wife nearly yields, only to fall rapturously in love with him all over again when he musters the angry virility to kill her. A sudden flood prevents the murder, leaving them to reconcile in a gorgeous meditation on fidelity and care. The Empress is so moved that she renounces her plan, dismisses her nurse, and awaits whatever fate has in store for her. For her selflessness, she receives a shadow, the curse on the Emperor is lifted, and both couples celebrate their unions while a chorus of unborn children hails the miracle of procreation.
A work of great psychological complexity, Die Frosch (“frog”), an abbreviation by which Strauss called it, premiered in Vienna in October 1919, one year after the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Strauss’s native Germany were defeated in the First World War, the bloodiest conflict on record up to that time. In gestation since 1911 and interrupted by the war—in which Strauss’s librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal was conscripted—the plot around the redemptive power of fertility resonated across Europe. Its sheer weight, however, has kept it on the margins of the standard repertoire, as have its enormous musical demands. The score is written for five soloists of Wagnerian heft and an orchestra of ninety-six—so big that when San Francisco presented it in 1976, the orchestra pit had to be expanded to the point that the first two rows of seats were removed (the only other expansion of the pit, in 1938, was done to accommodate the large orchestra of Strauss’s earlier opera Elektra). This iteration of David Hockney’s fancifully colorful production, which premiered in London in 1992, is nevertheless the seventh time the San Francisco Opera has presented the opera since its American debut here in 1959.
Symbolism is important in Die Frau ohne Schatten, and there was likewise no shortage of it for the SFO itself. The performances marked not only the return of San Francisco’s former music director Sir Donald Runnicles, who led the company from 1992 to 2009, but also his debut conducting the work. The star Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, who sang the Dyer’s Wife for the first time in America with this production, was honored after the first performance on June 4 with the San Francisco Opera Medal, the company’s highest award. This followed her appointment by the Bavarian State Opera as a Kammersängerin after singing the role in a performance that I attended in Munich in July 2022. Stemme and the soprano Camilla Nylund, who sang the Empress, both performed their parts in the Vienna State Opera’s centenary production in October 2019. In addition to Stemme’s award, the run’s premiere performance was dedicated to the memory of the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, who had died two days earlier. The entire run was dedicated to the memory of Hockney’s costume designer, the American illustrator Ian Falconer, who died in March 2023.
The performance was a stellar effort even if it did not always turn out for the best. Stemme’s Dyer’s Wife was far and away the big attraction, with gorgeous ascents and a beautiful, full-bodied tone resonating along with the best gestures and expressions of classic cinema. Like a skilled silent-film actress, she can do more with her eyes than most singers can do with their entire bodies. To say that this is her best role would do a disservice to her excellent performances as Strauss’s Elektra and Salome and in Wagner’s dramatic soprano parts. But if forced to choose only one, I would put the Dyer’s Wife as the leading candidate.
Nylund’s Empress was lithe and beautiful. She radiated captivating mystery as she navigated her soul-searching part. As Barak, the Danish baritone Johan Reuter gave a soulful reading in his company debut, with his best singing unfolding in an extraordinary lieder style. David Butt Philip’s Emperor, also a San Francisco debut, was not on the same level. He had a slow start and some difficulty projecting over the orchestra in the first two acts, but he pushed with greater intensity toward the end. Linda Watson has had a noted career in dramatic soprano parts, including as the Dyer’s Wife, but in the later stages of her career she was not the best choice for the Nurse, a mezzo who has to equal the other four soloists in volume to be successful.
Sir Donald’s return to the podium was loudly cheered by loyal fans who remember his time as music director and have occasionally seen him return. He favored slower and even ponderous tempos as the opera started, resisting taking full advantage of his brass section until he really opened it up in Act III. A more consistent and perhaps more daring reading of the score might have produced a better effect.
Hockney’s contrasts of cool and warm colors in stylized sets accentuated the opera’s fairy-tale setting, as did Falconer’s sometimes flamboyant costumes. Alas, the work could not escape some controversy in this most progressive of cities. When the opera was announced last year, the San Francisco music critic Joshua Kosman described it as “problematic” because its chorus of unborn children are so conscious, self-aware, and joyful that he believed even their fictional existence threatens progressive sensibilities about abortion. He had the good taste to leave that priggish point out of his performance review, but he did take an unnecessary swipe at the notion of childbearing as “an essential part” of the joys of marital love.
Nobody seemed to have any problem with the company’s simultaneous run of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which features the suicide of a Japanese teenage bride after her callow American husband abandons her and returns to take their child away with his “real” American wife. Michael Fabiano and the debutante Korean soprano Karah Son sang competently but without much passion in this fairly conventional production under San Francisco’s current music director Eun Sun Kim, though the baritone Lucas Meacham’s Sharpless offered a model of excellent baritonal singing. Despite Frosch’s flaws, however, it was the main course.