Opera Essentials: Die Frau ohne Schatten
A quick guide to Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal's mystical masterpiece.
12 February 2014 at 12.16pm | 1 Comment
Elena Pankratova and Emily Magee in Die Frau ohne Schatten, La Scala, Milan, 2013 © Monika Rittershaus/Teatro alla Scala
The Story Begins…
The Emperor has married a woman from the spirit world, who, as a supernatural being, casts no shadow. After a year, the Empress is told that if she cannot obtain a shadow within three days she will be forced to return to the spirit world and her husband will turn to stone. To what extremes will she go to acquire a mortal shadow?
Strauss’s Fairytale Opera
Strauss and Hofmannsthal began work on Die Frau ohne Schatten in 1911. They intended it to be their answer to Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte; a fairytale with a strong moral and spiritual dimension. Hofmannsthal became so excited by the subject that he wrote a full prose narrative to accompany the opera. The story was largely Hofmannsthal’s invention, though he drew on a wide range of material to inspire him, including passages from the Arabian Nights, Grimms’ fairytales, other German fairytales and Goethe’s Faust.
Claus Guth’s psychological production, originally shown at La Scala, Milan, brings out the darker aspects of Hofmannsthal’s fable, asking questions about female independence and repression. It movingly depicting the plight of the Empress trapped between two repressive worlds.
A Singers’ Showpiece
The five principal roles in Die Frau ohne Schatten are among the most challenging in all of Strauss’s operas. All have exquisite music, including two mighty monologues for the Emperor, several dramatic dialogues and a tender, yearning duet in Act III for Barak and his Wife. Another highlight is an impassioned solo scene for the Empress in Act III, as she struggles to maintain her integrity rather than steal a mortal woman’s shadow.
A Richly-Coloured Score
Strauss employs a massive orchestra for Die Frau ohne Schatten – including divided violas and cellos, quadruple winds, extensive percussion and an organ, thunder machine, wind machine and glass harmonica. However, there are also passages of extremely delicate scoring that depict the characters’ more tender emotions. Particularly striking passages include the singing of the Nightwatchmen at the end of Act I and the final, joyous ensemble of Act III.
Die Frau ohne Schatten runs from 14 March–2 April 2014. Tickets are still available.
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.