10 March 2014 at 5.09pm | Comment on this article
The invention and beauty of Richard Strauss's score for Die Frau ohne Schatten is staggering. Strauss marshals his massive orchestra to create a breathtaking array of musical effects, his orchestral language so rich and varied that almost every one of his motifs (musical 'tags' associated with ideas or characters) occupies its own distinct, instantly recognizable soundworld. It's the perfect counterpart for Hugo von Hofmannsthal's fairytale libretto, in which symbols loom large, their shadows spreading far.
Die Frau is a fable of human relationships, told through two couples: one, the Emperor and the Empress, so lofty and removed from reality that the relationship is sterile and the Emperor's heart hardened in jealousy; and the other, Barak and his Wife, so caught up in the drudgery of everyday existence that they cannot recognize their love for each other. In this parable symbols of hunting, of marriage, of children unborn, of shadows and mortality and a heart of stone have crucial importance. Their potency is captured and concentrated in Strauss's ingenious motivic writing.
For the most part the motifs are tiny musical fragments no more than a few notes long. They're astonishing both for their simplicity and the immediacy with which they characterize the symbol they represent. Take the motif for the Empress's father, Keikobad, that opens the opera. It's chilling and ominous, a heavy three-note pattern played on tuba, trombones and timpani (only slightly less terrifying than Strauss's other absent father figure in Elektra). Then there's the pervasive 'shadow' motif, symbolic of the Empress's unrealness and the sterility of her marriage. The motif, essentially just two ascending 4ths on top of each other, becomes magically ethereal and elusive with harp harmonics and rippling violins that play in surprising septuplet rhythms.
But perhaps most spectacular of all is the haunting 'Falcon' motif, which with only three notes evokes the creature's slow lonely circling, its constant hunt and plangent cry of anguish. The Falcon is a symbol related to the Emperor and the Empress. The Emperor used his beloved red Falcon to hunt down a white gazelle. Once he stabbed the gazelle with his spear it shape-shifted into the form of a woman. He made her his Empress and cast off the Falcon; but though he and the Empress love each other his passion for hunting is still all-consuming, and he leaves his wife alone for long hours, unfulfilled, still made of air and without a shadow.
The Falcon makes its return to the Empress near the beginning of the opera. The Empress's own music is trilling coloratura birdsong, joyous, melodic and full of light. She greets the Falcon merrily, thrilled to see the return of her husband's dear possession. But the Falcon's mournful cry, while still birdlike, is a world apart from the Empress's buoyant singing. Piccolo, oboes and clarinets sound in unison, crushing an appoggiatura D down into a C#. They have an insistent, nagging rhythm that is played over and over. The voice of the Falcon cries out on the same pitches, clashing brutally on its long held D over the predominant C#s in the accompaniment, as it delivers its message: 'Why should I not cry? The Empress has no shadow and the Emperor must turn to stone.'
The Falcon's cry recurs again and again throughout the opera, always at the same pitch and the same tempo – unique among the motifs, which otherwise are all transformed as they return. The 'Falcon' motif implacably needles the Emperor into jealousy in Act II, and in Act III taunting the Empress as she struggles to resist temptation, always piercing through the musical fabric around it. It's a breathtakingly rich, simple and effective idea – just one of the hundreds in Strauss's supreme masterpiece.
The production is staged with generous philanthropic support from Sir Simon and Lady Robertson, Hamish and Sophie Forsyth, The Friends of Covent Garden and an anonymous donor.