If you love the operas of Richard Strauss -- the gloriously lyrical Rosenkavalier, the wonderfully witty Ariadne auf Naxos, the deliriously depraved Salome -- sooner or later you're going to come up against Die Frau ohne Schatten. Setting a highly symbolic and deeply obscure libretto by Hugo von Hoffmansthal, Die Frau is for some a successful fusion of the dramatic lyricism of Mozart with the orchestral color and weight of Wagner, while for others, it's an over-loud, over-long, and over-scored mistake. But if you love Strauss, you'll have to come to terms with the work -- it stands at the center of his oeuvre and remains his most monumental and imposing work -- and then the question becomes which one you should hear.
There are good reasons for trying this 1977 live stereo performance with Karl Böhm leading the Vienna Philharmonic and an all-star cast. Böhm was an old hand at Strauss' music and he knew from long experience how to move Die Frau along when it dawdles, how to juice it up when it flags, and how to calm it down when it gets too excited. The Vienna Philharmonic, here in its role as the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, plays with radiant energy, complete control, and consummate musicianship. The all-star cast is perhaps not all it could be. James King as the Kaiser has a tendency to shout. Leonie Rysanek as the Kaiserin has a tendency to scream. Walter Berry as Barak is a bit too tired. Birgit Nilsson as Sein Weib -- the role's only name -- is a little too worn. Some listeners may hold out for Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic's 1989 digital studio recording for its superior sound if they find that while the cast is arguably better, Solti's high-powered and hard-charging interpretation brings out the worst in Die Frau.