Die Frau ohne Schatten
Opera in three acts (1919)
Hugo von Hofmannsthal
During the First World War, Richard Strauss and his like-minded partner Hugo von Hofmannsthal created this fantastical, fairy-tale opera full of symbols and metaphors, which they regarded as their main oeuvre. »The Woman Without a Shadow» is undoubtedly one of the most enigmatic, fascinating works in the repertoire of opera in the way it oscillates between otherworldliness and psychoanalytic zeal. With all kinds of conceivable sounds that shimmer in a vast range of timbres, Strauss once again expanded the palette of late-Romantic orchestral music with this challenging, lavish opus that dealt with highly intimate subject matter in a bombastic form. Claus Guth’s multi-layered, impressive directorial work, created at La Scala in Milan and already performed at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, emphasises the sombre undertones of the opera and evokes the hardship of the empress who is caught between two repressive worlds.
THE STORY UNTIL NOW
The Empress was once captured by her husband the Emperor in the form of a gazelle with the help of his falcon. She is the daughter of the powerful, stern king of the world of spirits Keikobad, who has set her a deadline of one year: if she does not cast a shadow within the year and remains infertile, the Emperor will turn to stone and the Empress will have to return to her father.
A messenger dispatched by Keikobad asks the Empress’s Nurse whether she has in the meantime cast a shadow. When she says that she has not, he announces that time will run out in three days. When the Emperor leaves for a three-day hunt, the Nurse is silent about the messenger’s visit, but the Empress learns of the impending danger of the Emperor’s turning to stone from his falcon. She begs the Nurse to help her. The Nurse tells her how she can obtain a shadow in the realm of mortals and they begin the journey there.
In the mortal world, they meet the dyer Barak and his wife who, like the Empress, was forced to marry and longs for her own freedom. Tired of living with Barak and his three brothers, the Dyer’s Wife announces that she is going to leave her husband. Even though Barak urgently wants children, the marriage has remained childless. When he leaves to go to work, the Nurse convinces the young woman to give her shadow to the empress. Now left alone, the Dyer’s Wife is plagued by a sense of guilt and hears the voices of unborn children. When her husband returns, she refuses to dine with him and decides to sleep alone. Barak is confused by his wife’s behavior.
Barak has hardly left the house the next morning when the Nurse has a youth appear to seduce the young woman. But before this happens, Barak returns with his three brothers and a crowd of children that he has invited to eat with them, drawing a hostile reaction from his wife.
In the meantime, the Emperor has begun to search for the Empress. When he finds the Empress among mortals, he feels deceived and threatens to kill her, but he is unable to do so.
In the house of mortals, the Nurse gives Barak a sleeping potion and once again lets the beautiful youth appear, but the Dyer’s Wife refuses the attempts at seduction at the very last moment and instead is overtaken by panic. She awakens Barak and confronts him with numerous accusations. Briefly thereafter, she leaves the house with the Nurse.
The Empress is tortured by her sense of pity for Barak. At the same time, the threatened fate of her husband appears to her in a dream. She sees him disappear behind a rock wall, and she wakes in horror. She feels guilty in the face of both men.
Returning, Barak’s wife is full of disdain for her husband and provokes him by claiming to have had an affair and admits having willingly given away her shadow, so that she will never have children. The despairing husband threatens to kill her. The Nurse tells the Empress to take the woman’s shadow as her own, but she refuses. The woman finally admits to not having committed adultery and faces her fate. When Barak reaches out to kill her, the earth opens and both are torn into the depths.
Barak and his wife find themselves in two separate subterranean chambers. Each longs for the other and both regret their respective guilt. But a voice announces to Barak and then to his wife that the path to one another is open, but leads in opposite directions.
Arriving at the rock wall, behind which the Empress saw the Emperor disappear in a dream, she is determined, despite the insistent warnings of the Nurse, to face Keikobad’s court and to save her husband. She takes leave of the Nurse and walks through the rock. The Nurse is sent back to the mortal world she so hates by a messenger of Keikobad.
Beyond the rock, the Empress hears the voice of the wandering Barak and his wife. She demands that her father Keikobad judge them, but he does not respond. When a guardian of the threshold offers her to drink of the water of life to get a shadow, she refuses. She will rather die with the Emperor than to take on guilt. With the words, “I don’t want to,” she refuses the guardian’s offer once and for all. The Emperor then appears, now brought back to life by her refusal, and the Empress begins to cast a shadow. The scene changes: Barak and his Wife, who has now regained her shadow, find their way to one another, and the Emperor and Empress are also reunited. The voices of unborn children mix with those of the happy couples.