Two revered European directors have made belated UK debuts at the Royal Opera House this season, with contrasting results. While Stefan Herheim's account of Les Vêpres siciliennes languishes on the ‘heroic failure' shelf, the German Claus Guth held the Covent Garden audience spellbound on the opening night of Die Frau ohne Schatten, often deemed to be Richard Strauss's problem opera but in his interpretation anything but.
An earthly Emperor has married the daughter of the spirit-god Keikobad. She lives as a mortal woman in all ways but one: she has no shadow. Her father sends a messenger commanding her to obtain one within three days, otherwise her husband will be turned to stone.
For shadow, read fertility. The composer's prodigious librettist, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, conjured an allegorical fairy tale on a profoundly human subject that he originally intended as a confection along the lines of The Magic Flute; Strauss's music, though, reflects the text's undertow by surging like a psychological whirlpool. It is this quality that Guth chooses to chart by presenting the entire opera as a Jungian psychosis within the mind of a repressed young woman.
If that concept sounds faintly Eurochic, so be it. The fact is it works. After several recent cases of directors being too cynical to respect their material, Guth has taken one of the most challenging operas in the repertoire and staged it with beauty, sensitivity and intellectual honesty.
Not only do Christian Schmidt's handsome, curved-wood designs suggest a psychiatrist's consulting room writ large, their evolving secrets are stylish without being obtrusive. Andi A. Müller's occasional video contributions sit neatly within this environment, a by-product of whose solidity is exceptional acoustical clarity – so helpful for the singers in such a taxing score.
And what singers they are. It is never easy to cast the right voices for this demanding work, yet all the main parts are taken by artists of ideal heft and hue. In the title role the American soprano Emily Magee, who rarely leaves the stage in four-and-a-quarter hours, grew in vocal power as the evening progressed, matched note for note by a barnstorming performance from German mezzo Michaela Schuster as her mysterious, Machiavellian Nurse. Between them they sank carnivorous musical teeth into Strauss's richly fibrous music.
If the Russian dramatic soprano Elena Pankratova chewed the scenery as well as the score, she was only being true to the incipient hysteria within her character, the Dyer's barren wife. As her husband, the Danish baritone Johan Reuter, always dependable and here so much more than that, sang with an evenly-produced muscularity.
These four characters dominate the opera and the staging. The Heldentenor Johan Botha, in ringing voice, made isolated but telling appearances as the Emperor, while Ashley Holland as the Spirit Messenger and David Butt Philip as the youthful Apparition stood out among several impressive cameos.
Semyon Bychkov wrought sensational playing from the ROH Orchestra. A massive complement of players overflowed into several sections of the stalls circle, yet there was light and shade aplenty throughout a reading that overwhelmed the emotions but never the senses.
It was a great night for the Royal Opera, and if any seats remain unsold for later performances snap them up fast, because there'll be hot competition from first-nighters hungry for a return visit. It's a show where pretty well everything gels. The stars have aligned and there are five of them.