Die Frau ohne Schatten
Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
Premiere: Vienna State Opera, 1919
The fourth collaboration of Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal was in many ways their most ambitious: a heavily symbolic morality tale about love and marriage that unfolds in a fairy-tale world of multiple dimensions, from the gritty and earthy to the ethereal. The authors saw their work as a thematic heir to Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, but the two operas—separated by 130 years of music history—present radically different profiles. Die Frau ohne Schatten (“The Woman without a Shadow”) is a highly poetic fantasy replete with the psychoanalytical asides typical of the Viennese milieu in which it was created. Its five lead roles are daunting even by Strauss’s demanding standards, while the orchestral requirements and staging challenges alone assure this opera a unique spot in the repertory. The story concerns two couples: the Emperor and Empress—he a mortal human, she the daughter of the spirit god Keikobad—and Barak the Dyer (the opera’s only character who has a name), a poor but decent man, and his dissatisfied young wife. Between them stands the Empress’s Nurse, a diabolical woman of the spirit world who hates anything human. After a year of marriage, the Empress is still without a shadow—Hofmannsthal’s symbol for motherhood. If she doesn’t acquire one within three days, she will return to her father and the Emperor will be turned to stone. In order to prevent this, the Nurse plots to steal a shadow from the Dyer’s Wife, and the Empress must confront the implications of her choices and the challenge of becoming a complete human being. Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s creation of such a grand tale of husbands, wives, and children was informed by the trauma of World War I and the collapse of the Habsburg Empire. The resulting opera is unique: a colossal structure of lofty fantasy that glorifies the simple pleasures of family life and love over exotic illusions of happiness.
Richard Strauss (1864–1949) composed an impressive body of orchestral works and songs before turning to opera. After two early failures, Salome (1905) caused a theatrical sensation, and the balance of his long career was largely dedicated to the stage. His next opera, Elektra (1909), was his first collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874–1929), a partnership that became one of the most remarkable in theater history. Hofmannsthal emerged as an author and poet within the fervent intellectual atmosphere of Vienna at the turn of the last century. The two artists’ personalities were very different—Hofmannsthal enjoyed the world of abstract ideas, while Strauss was famously simple in his tastes—which makes their collaboration all the more remarkable.
The opera takes place in the mythical Empire of the South-Eastern Islands. The story moves between the humble dwelling of the Dyer and his Wife, in and around the palace of the Emperor and the Empress, in the forest, and in a grotto beneath the realm of the spirit god Keikobad.
Strauss’s score calls for extraordinarily large musical forces, including an on-stage orchestra of winds and brass (plus thunder machine and organ), in addition to a large pit orchestra with such augmentations as glass harmonica, two celestas, and an extravagant percussion section that features a slapstick, castanets, and Chinese gongs. The opera begins without a prelude; orchestral interludes throughout the three acts convincingly facilitate the transitions between the levels of existence. The vocal writing is remarkable, including such unusual touches as the three sopranos and three baritones that represent the voices of the Dyer’s and his Wife’s unborn children. The Emperor’s heroic solo scene (Act II, Scene 2) is a notable and rare example of Strauss’s extended writing for tenor. All five lead roles require great strength, stamina, and musicality: beyond penetrating the dense orchestration, the singers are also expected to produce elegant and even delicate passages (the Empress’s entrance aria includes coloratura and trills). The final moments of Act I offer a good example of some of Strauss’s surprising musical effects: while much of the opera’s otherworldly music is assigned to the spirit world, one of the score’s most ravishing sequences is sung by three offstage baritones who wander through the dirty town as Night Watchmen, urging husbands and wives to love and cherish each other throughout the dark hours.
Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Met
The Met premiere of Die Frau ohne Schatten was a memorable event: a spectacular staging directed and designed by Nathaniel Merrill and Robert O’Hearn, unveiled as the fourth of nine new productions during the company’s inaugural season at Lincoln Center, on October 2, 1966. Karl Böhm conducted a cast led by Leonie Rysanek, Christa Ludwig, Irene Dalis, James King, and Walter Berry in his Met debut. Others artists who appeared in this production include Inge Borkh, Helga Dernesch, and Bernd Weikl. Erich Leinsdorf led five memorable performances in 1981 with singers including Eva Marton, Mignon Dunn, and Birgit Nilsson in her final staged Met performance. The current production by Herbert Wernicke (which remained his only Met staging) premiered in 2001, with Christian Thielemann conducting Deborah Voigt, Gabriele Schnaut, Reinhild Runkel, Thomas Moser, and Wolfgang Brendel.