World premiere: 10 October 1919, Operntheater, Vienna
Premiere in Russia and premiere of this production: 16 November 2009, Mariinsky Theatre
Running time: 4 hours 30 minutes
The performance has two intervals
Music by Richard Strauss
Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
Musical Director: Valery Gergiev
Stage Director: Jonathan Kent
Production Designer: Paul Brown
Lighting Designer: Tim Mitchell
Lighting Adaptation for the Mariinsky II by Andrei Ponizovsky
Video & Projection Designers: Sven Ortel, Nina Dunn
Choreographer: Denni Sayers
Vocal and Language Preparation and Consulting: Richard Trimborn
Children’s Chorus Master: Irina Yatsemirskaya
The Emperor of the South-East Islands is married to the daughter of a fairy that he captured while out hunting; once he injured a gazelle which transformed into the beautiful young woman.
Having become the Emperor’s wife, she did not, however, become human. She casts no shadow and so cannot become a mother. There is a connection between having a shadow and motherhood, as the former is an Omen and Destiny. The Nurse is pleased at this as she despises all that is human. Keikobad, ruler of the Spirit Realm and the Empress’ father, sends his envoy who holds talks with the Nurse. A falcon flies to the Empress, having been on a hunt with the Emperor when he shot at a while gazelle. The falcon informs her that ‘‘Time will soon run out, woman will not cast a shadow – and thus the Emperor will be turned to stone.’’ The Empress understands the allusion: she has gone beyond the confines of the demonic world, but the Emperor’s egotistical love has not surrounded her with humanity. She is between two worlds: one that does not wish to let her go, and one that will not accept her. And this curse will exert its power not over her, but rather over him. The Empress wishes to acquire a shadow whatever the cost. She is assisted in this by the Nurse, who proposes buying a person’s shadow. The Empress and the Nurse set off and come to the family of Barak the Dyer.
Barak is no longer young, but he is hale and hearty, as an ox. He works for the sake of his three brothers and his Wife, who is young and attractive but dissatisfied with her life with Barak. Children would be a divine blessing for him, though this marriage, too, has produced no children. The Empress and the Nurse ask the servant to direct them to the Dyer’s Wife.
The Nurse offers the Dyer’s Wife fine clothes and a lover in exchange for her surrendering her shadow and her fertility. With magic spells and gestures, the old procuress ensnares the young woman and the Dyer’s Wife concludes the bargain. The Empress barely understands this tainted covenant, thanks to which she will acquire her heart’s desire. But the deal is done, the guests vanish suddenly and the Dyer’s Wife is once more left alone. The voices of her unborn children can be heard coming from the pan where five fish are being fried, lamenting mournfully from the darkness. The unsuspecting Dyer returns home. Barak and his Wife each go to their separate beds.
The trials begin. The Nurse tempts the young woman with a spectre of a languishing and ardent young boy. As soon as the Dyer leaves, the youth appears in his house. Barak doesn’t know what is going on, but his kind but foolish heart becomes heavier and heavier. He feels that something is amiss, as if someone is calling on him to help. The Empress is involved in this evil scheme. At night, in fear-filled dreams she sees her husband walking through an empty forest, alone, eaten up by egotistical suspicions. His heart has already turned to stone. She awakes from her prophetic dream, but her days are more dangerous than her nights. There is no room for a creature from the Spirit Realm in the world of men. Gradually the Empress overcomes her fears and begins to sense her guilt before Barak. The third night falls: The Nurse, in order to complete the pact, calls on devilish forces for help. Heavy mists descend all around. A cry of horror emerges from the mouths of Barak’s brothers, while the lips of Barak’s Wife produce insane, wild words. She accuses herself of something she has not yet done – of marital infidelity – and says that she has sold her shadow and spurned her unborn children. The brothers light a fire and become convinced of what has been said: the young woman stands before them as a witch, casting no shadow. The Nurse rejoices – the pact has come into force. One has surrendered her shadow; the other must take it for herself. At this terrible and decisive moment, Barak seems to grow taller; his lips, which to this point have uttered no wicked word, pronounce the death penalty on his Wife. A glittering sword appears in his hands. At the sight of the sword, the Nurse understands that higher forces have entered the game, ones with which she cannot compete. Instead of grabbing the shadow, the Empress drags the Nurse away to avoid being spattered in human blood. The Wife falls at Barak’s feet, in supplication and in mad frenzy holds the sword above her own self. The fates are woven together and voices drown each other out – everything around is suddenly under some magic power. The Earth rotates and swallows man and wife; Barak’s house crashes to the ground. A huge swell of water rises from the depths. The Nurse, shielding the Empress with her cloak, seats her in a boat that has magically appeared.
The first trial has been completed, and those who have completed it set out for The Spirit Realm. The boat with the Empress and the Nurse arrives at the gates of the Temple. She knows: she is being called to judgement. In the depths, utterly unaware of one another, Barak and his Wife are struggling in their confinement. The voice of one of the spirits calls them upwards. They rise and think of one another with tenderness: he forgiving her, and she begging forgiveness, humbly and, for the first time, lovingly. They rise above, trying to find each other. Here they meet the Nurse, standing before the closed gates of the Temple. The messenger of the spirits guards the entrance from her. She is infuriated. The Empress is standing in the depths of the Temple and awaits the court. But who is it that will judge her? Is it the King of Spirits, her stern father? A curtain screens his face. The Empress’ courageous supplication goes unanswered. There is only the gentle gurgling of the water of the Golden Source, the Source of Life.
‘‘Drink,’’ says a voice, ‘‘Drink, and the Wife’s shadow will be yours.’’ The Empress hears the voices of the separated man and wife and steps back without having let her lips touch the Golden Source. The waters recede. The Emperor sits upon a stone throne, unmoving, turned to stone. It is only in his eyes, it would appear, that life still lingers. The Source of Life again begins to ring out at the statue’s feet. Sweet voices from above can be heard: ‘‘Say ‘I want it’ and the woman’s shadow will be yours, it will rise, come to life and go with you.’’ The Empress freezes to the spot, battling with her own self. The barely heard words ‘‘I don’t want it!’’ at last come from her lips. She is victorious, as the mother before the throne of Solomon was victorious, prepared to lose her child that he might live. She is victorious for her own self and for the sake of one who would, without her self-sacrifice, otherwise remain petrified forever. And for the sake of two others who, having suffered so much, must rise upwards. A distinct shadow falls on the floor of the Temple. The voices of the unborn children can be heard rejoicing.
“A woman has no shadow and so her husband must be turned into stone.” This connection between two events – so strange that it could only have come from the realm of dreams – formed the basis for one of the most unusual and bewitching operas of the 20th century.
The first to have this dream was not the composer but rather his librettist. In 1911 Hugo von Hofmannsthal, an Austrian playwright who sang the praises of love and death in his symbolist poems and dramas, proposed the unusual subject to his great friend Richard Strauss. The Empress – a being from the spirit world – has to become the same as all living men and acquire a shadow (a symbol for humankind and for womanhood) or her husband will be turned to stone. The simple subject canvas opens up a rich world of ideas, and in the language of symbols it tells of the birth of a personality through the struggle for its soul with dark forces. Not by chance were von Hofmannsthal and Strauss contemporaries of Nietzsche and Freud, who opened the door to Europeans to the world of the subconscious. However, von Hofmannsthal’s inspiration came not from Freud but rather from ancient Eastern tales and the romantic novellas of Chamisso, Novalis and Lenau. And also from Mozart! Having written the libretto for Strauss for the opera Der Rosenkavalier, based loosely on Mozart and Da Ponte’s Le nozze di Figaro, von Hofmannsthal conceived a new opera “the plot of which also correlates with Die Zauberflöte, just as the plot of Der Rosenkavalier does with Le nozze di Figaro”. The idea of contrasting two worlds – the human world and the spirit world – flowed from Mozart’s masterpiece into Die Frau ohne Schatten, as did the idea of overcoming difficulties that help the characters gain a new understanding of life. Arguably, this is where the similarities end. When starting work on the libretto, von Hofmannsthal wrote that it was impossible to recreate the “enchanting naivety of many scenes in Die Zauberflöte” and subsequently went increasingly farther from the initial idea in favour of the gloomy psychology of a 20th century drama.
Richard Strauss thought the libretto to be excellent and he used it as a basis to write the most unusual of his operas. Neither before – in the shockingly beautiful Salome and Elektra and the epicurean Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos – nor after, when his pen was increasingly producing comic operas, did Strauss turn to such a complex and symbolist subject. Neither before nor after did he immerse himself so fully in researching the finest motions of the human soul, the struggle of its gnawing, opposing desires.
The music of the opera, a worthy competitor to the composer’s numerous other operatic masterpieces, drew and continues to draw the most varied responses. Some critics have found “hitherto unknown heights of inspiration” in it, while others have seen “pretentiousness and pomposity”. The reasons for these disagreements lie in the complicated nature of the music, where one hears the voice of the mature maestro, who has lost his taste for shocking and stylistic experimentation. The music of Die Frau ohne Schatten sounds refreshingly deep and lofty. It contains deeply imbued lyrical episodes, where human suffering is conveyed with noble courage and highly effective and colourful “infernal” scenes. They are given a particular flavour by the immense orchestra with the large percussion section, the Chinese gong, the xylophone, the celesta, the organ and the glass harmonica. The orchestra comprises over one hundred musicians and facilitates the production of unusual sound effects. The glass harmonica, which can be heard in the finale of the opera, creates a particular, mystical flavour in the final scene with its light, otherworldly sound, where the protagonists attain catharsis and become freed from passions.
The composer himself, who worked on Die Frau ohne Schatten for three years (1914–1917) coinciding with the tragic events of World War I, called it “a child of sorrow”. This grief arose not just because of the worries of the war years but also because of difficulties in mastering the material. However, on completing the opera he named it “the most important opera of my life” and said that “people who understand art will consider Die Frau ohne Schatten to be one of my most significant works.”
The world premiere of the opera took place on 10 October 1919 in Vienna, when post-war domestic difficulties were at their greatest and it met with a cool response from the public. Later, however, Die Frau ohne Schatten went on to be staged on numerous occasions at the world’s opera houses and came to be seen as a kind of indicator of theatres’ performing strengths and artistic greatness. This is one of the most complex scores in the history of music: Strauss used a vast orchestra with over one hundred musicians and made incredibly high demands of the soloists. There are few theatres that can boast of having this opera in their repertoires – in Russia only the Mariinsky Theatre has staged its own production of Die Frauohne Schatten. Yekaterina Yusupova
Musical materials provided by SCHOTT MUSIC GmbH & Co, Mainz (Germany)
By arrangement with Fürstner Musikverlag Mainz
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