Review: A Colorful, Brilliantly Performed “Frau ohne Schatten” – San Francisco Opera, June 4, 2023

San Francisco Opera’s first 21st century performances of Richard Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten” revive a work that had been performed by the company in six seasons between 1959 and 1989. The 2023 revival secured a production new to San Francisco built around British artist David Hockney’s scenic design. The production was created for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1992, and has been performed in subsequent seasons by the Los Angeles Opera, where I first saw it.

Also recruited for the revival was the company’s former Music Director, Maestro Sir Donald Runnicles. This was Runnicles’ first “Frau” performance.

The five main principals were strongly cast, notably the three principal female roles – the Empress (Camilla Nylund), the Dyers’ Wife (Nina Stemme) and the Nurse (Linda Watson) – each sung by an artist on whose accompishments in the vocal demands of Wagnerian opera I have reported in past reviews.

[Below: The Nurse (Linda watson, left) presents the Dyer’s Wife (Nina Stemme, center) with her vCory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Camilla Nylund’s Empress and David Butt Philip’s Emperor

Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund, as the Empress, one of the most vocally difficult roles in the German repertory, succesfully navigated the role’s extraordinary demands on the soprano voice. Those demands range from the need for an effervescent coloratura style in her first appearances to Nylund’s assumption of a dramatic soprano’s power in later scenes.

[Below: the Emperor (David Butt Philip, right) engages with his Empress (Camilla Nylund, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Richard Strauss’ vocal demands for the role of the Empress are far beyond such youthful Wagnerian roles as Elsa and Elisabeth. I have reported previously on Nylund’s perofmranes of both of these Wagnerian roles, Elsa [Review: Jovanovich is a Joy in Luisotti’s Luminous “Lohengrin” – San Francisco Opera, October 20, 2012] and Elisabeth [Review: Wagner Knows Best – Elegant San Diego Opera “Tannhäuser” Sticks to the Story, January 26, 2008].

[Below: Camilla Nylund as the Empress; edited ijmage, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francsico Opera.]

“Frau ohne Schatten’s” story is said to be inspired by the dynastic obligation of empresses to bear children who will perpetuate imperial regimes that existed until the end of World War I, but any reference to real world issues within the opera is recondite, as the opera’s story weaves between the surreal world of the opera’s imperial family and the mundane world of the Dyer and his wife.

British tenor David Butt Philip was a vocally resplendent, heroic presence as the Emperor, whose main interest is hunting for prey in a magical world. The Emperor’s greatest conquest to date is the capture of a gazelle that has been transformed into his Empress.

[Below: David Butt Philip as the Emperor; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Philip’s heroic tenor sound was often accompanied by the Emperor’s leitmotiv, not only one of the grandest in the works of Richard Strauss operas, but in all of German opera.

Nina Stemme’s Dyer’s Wife and Johan Reuter’s Barak

Swedish soprano Nina Stemme proved a lustrous presence as the Dyer’s Wife, engaging her powerful voice for one of the most challenging roles in the dramatic soprano repertory. It was a triumphant performance vocally and was theatrically compelling, Stemme displaying the range of emotions and character growth that makes the role ultimately a sympathetic one.

[Photo: Nina Stemme as the Dyers’ Wife; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Stemme as been a major presence at the San Francisco Opera, performing all three operas of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung” in which the character Brünnhilde appears [See A Second Look Review: Stemme, Delavan, Lead Power Cast of San Francisco Opera “Walküre” – June 13, 2010 and Review: Down and Out in Zambello’s American Ring – Sly, Theatrically-Centered “Siegfried” Satisfies – San Francisco Opera, June 17, 2011 and Review: Glorious “Götterdämmerung”: Nina Stemme Glistens – San Francisco Opera, June 5, 2011].

Stemme also has a San Francisco Opera tie-in to another David Hockney project, his famous scenic design for Puccini’s “Turandot”: [Review: San Francisco Opera’s Treasured “Turandot” – Stemme, Crocetto, Howard Join Cast, November 18, 2017.]

The Dyer, Barak, was performed by Danish baritone Johan Reuter in a solid vocal and dramatic performance of this wholly sympathetic character.

[Below: Johan Reuter as Barak; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Linda Watson’s Nurse and Other Cast Members

California soprano Linda Watson provided an extraordinary performance of the role of the Nurse. Watson’s career repertory continues to include Wagner’s dramatic soprano roles, to which she has added such major character roles as Herodias in Richard Strauss’ “Salome”.

The role of the Nurse, the only one of the opera’s principal characters who has no affinity with the human world, is another of the opera’s fiendishly difficult roles. Watson proved mesmerizing in her interpretation.

[Below: Linda Watson as the Nurse; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

This is my first opportunity to see Watson in a dozen years. My reports on her performances include those on her Kundry [Review: Domingo is the Redeemer of Los Angeles Opera’s spellbound “Parsifal”, December 8, 2005], her Isolde [Review: Liebesnacht – Treleaven’s Triumphant Tristan and Watson’s Wondrous Isolde at Los Angeles Opera, January 23, 2008] and Brünnhildes in very different productions [Review: Zambello’s Dazzling American Ring ”Walküre” at Kennedy Center – Washington National Opera, March 28, 2007 and Review: Standing Ovations for Achim Freyer, James Conlon, Cast of “Götterdämmerung” – Los Angeles Opera, April 3, 2010].

In addition, 20 other principal singers excelled in smaller roles. Minnesota bass Stefan Egerstrom was A Spirit Messenger. Canadian soprano Mikalyla Sager was the Keeper of the Gates of the Temple. Tenor Victor Cardmone was an Apparition of a Youth. Canadian soprano Olivia Smith’s principal role was the Voice of the Falcon.

Florida bass-baritone Philip Skinner, one of the very small number of artists in history who have sung more than 300 performances at the San Francisco Opera, was Barak’s One-Eyed Brother. Iowa bass-baritone Wayne Tigges, memorable in his role as Joe St. George in a Tobias Picker opera [World Premiere Review: Patricia Racette’s Gritty “Dolores Claiborne” at San Francisco Opera – September 18, 2013] was Barak’s One-Armed Brother and Chinese tenor Zhengyi Bai was Barak’s Hunchback Brother.

[Below: Philip Skinner (left), Zhengyi Bai (center), and Wayne Tigges (right) performed the roles of Barak’s three brothers; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The Voices of the Unborn Children were Georgia mezzo-soprano Gabrielle Beteag, California soprano Elisa Sunshine, Virginia soprano Arianna Rodriguez and California mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz. The Voices of the Nighwatchmen were Chilean baritone Javier Arrey, South Korean baritone Kidon Choi and South Korean bass-baritone Jongwon Han. New York’s Christopher Nachtrab was the Solo Dancer.

Maestro Sir Donald Runnicles and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus

The musical performance was exemplary, led by Maestro Sir Donald Runnicles in his debut preformance conducting this work, leading a 96 member San Francisco Opera Orchestra and a 54 member San Francisco Opera Chorus (the latter directed by Pennsylvania Chorus Director John Keene.

[Below: Sir Donald Runnicles; edited image of a publicity photograph, from]

The expanded San Francisco Opera orchestra resounded gloriously in the War Memorial Opera in an inspired performance by Runnicles. Special mention of two extraordinary instrumental soloists is warranted, a heartfelt, beautifully performed cello solo by Acting Principal Cellist Thalia Moore and an equally enjoyable solo passage by Concertmaster Kay Stern.

“Frau ohne Schatten” is a perfect vehicle to demonstrate just how talented the individual insturmentalists of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra are, as well as how beautifully and powerfully the total orchestra sounds performing Strauss’ intensely melodic work. Where Strauss calls for a demonstration of power, Runnicles and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra create a “wall of sound”.

Roy Rallo’s Direction, David Hockney’s Production and Scenic Design and Ian Falconer’s Costumes

This season’s production, by British artist David Hockney, was created for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1992. Although the San Francisco Opera has mounted a half dozen productions associated with Hockney over the past three decades, his “Frau ohne Schatten” sets are used by the San Francisco Opera for the first time.

[Below: Dancers appear in the Dyers’ shop, one portraying a handsome young man in an oval mirror; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

For the opera, Hockney created a striking scenic design, whose palette of colors are complemented by Connecticut designer Ian Falconer’s vibrant costumes.

[Below: the Emperor (David Butt Philip, bottom center, right) and Empress (Camilla Nylund. bottom center, left) stroll across a river bridge; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The performance was directed by California designer Roy Rallo. The lighting for the production revival was created by New York designer Justin A. Partier. The choreography was created by Irish choreographer Colm Seery.

Post-Finale Events: the San Francisco Opera Medal Awarded to Nina Stemme

During the curtain calls (and accompanying ovations) San Francisco Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock came on stage and presented Nina Stemme with the San Francisco Opera Medal, the company’s prestigious award for artistic achievement. (Stemme shared the stage with a previous San Francisco Opera Medal Awardee, Sir Donald Runnicles).

Recommendation: I enthusiastically recommend San Francisco Opera’s 2023 cast and production of Richard Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten”, to both the veteran opera-goer and persons new to opera who wish to see a seldom-produced operatic masterpiece.