Opera Scotland

Frau ohne Schatten The Woman Without a Shadow; Die Frau ohne Schatten

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Richard Strauss (born Munich, 11 June 1864; died Garmisch, 8 September 1949)

Hugo von Hofmannsthal.


First performance: Vienna (Staatsoper), 10 October 1919.
First UK performance: London (Sadler’s Wells Theatre), 2 May 1966.
First performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (Festival Theatre), 1 September 2011.
Scottish Opera première: N/A.

Die Frau ohne Schatten is the largest work produced by Strauss in terms of the forces required to perform it. It also has very complicated staging requirements. Because of references to it by Hofmannsthal as a magic fairy tale it has sometimes been suggested that it is his version of The Magic Flute. Any idea that it is a hymn to the procreation of children stimulated by the slaughter of the First World War is difficult to support, given that Strauss worked on it between 1914 and 1917, yet Hofmannsthal first raised the idea of the central theme in 1911. In Britain, the opera arrived late, and only in 1966 was it brought to Sadler’s Wells by the Hamburg Opera. Covent Garden and Welsh National have since staged it.

Main Characters
The Emperor of the South Eastern Islands (tenor)
The Empress, his wife, daughter of Keikobad, ruler of the spirits (soprano)
The Empress’s Nurse (mezzo-soprano)
A Spirit Messenger, servant of Keikobad (bass)
Barak, a dyer (bass-baritone)
Barak’s wife (soprano)

Plot Summary
The symbolism of the Shadow is concerned with the bearing of children. The Empress wants children, but does not cast a shadow. The dyer’s wife casts a shadow, but her marriage is unhappy, and she has no wish for children. The Empress’s nurse bargains for the purchase of her unwanted shadow, which can be transferred to the Empress. The Messenger from Keikobad tells the nurse that since the Empress still casts no shadow, she must return to her father in three days, and the Emperor will be turned to stone. To prevent this, the Empress begs her nurse to help her find a shadow. Disguised as peasants, they visit the home of Barak. His wife is a nagger, while he is kind-hearted, but he is upset at her continued failure to give him a child. The nurse tempts the dyer’s wife to sell her shadow in exchange for wealth. She agrees, but after she has separated her bed from her husband’s, she is terrified by a vision of her unborn children. Next day she is visited again, and this time the nurse conjures visions of a handsome youth, more attractive than Barak. The wife still lacks the courage to deceive her husband. The Emperor, back from hunting, worries about the change in his wife. On the third day, the Empress begins to feel sympathy towards Barak, while also worrying about her husband being turned to stone. The dyer’s wife admits to her husband that she wanted to sell her shadow. In desperation, Barak nearly kills her. The Empress realises the price of a shadow is too high and she refuses it. Further temptations are offered her, and she is shown her husband as he is turning to stone – only his eyes move, pleading with her. She refuses one last time, but has passed the trial. She has a shadow, and is reunited with the Emperor, Barak and his wife are also reconciled, and we hear the voices of their unborn children.



DECCA (3 CDs) Sung in German Recorded 1989

Conductor: Georg Solti
Vienna Philharmonic
Hildegard Behrens (Dyer’s Wife), Julia Varady (Empress), Plácido Domingo (Emperor),
José van Dam (Barak), Reinhild Runkel (Nurse), Albert Dohmen (Messenger)

Solti conducted this opera regularly during his career, so it is perhaps surprising that he left it so late to make a studio recording. However, the results are superb. Behrens is acerbic without sounding too nagging as Mrs Barak, and Varady's voice soars gloriously as the Empress. The Emperor is one of the best German recordings Domingo made – the part is rarely so beautifully sung – and José van Dam completes the quartet admirably.

Buy it here.

TELDEC (3 CDs) Sung in German Recorded 1996

Conductor: Giuseppe Sinopoli
Dresden Staatskapelle
Sabine Hass (Dyer’s Wife), Deborah Voigt (Empress), Ben Heppner (Emperor),
Franz Grundheber (Barak), Hanna Schwarz (Nurse), Hans-Joachim Ketelsen (Messenger).

Purple patches seldom sound more purple than when they are being coloured by short-lived Italian composer-conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli. The big pieces of Strauss suit him remarkably well. The Dresden orchestra also have this music in their blood, and the cast doesn’t have a weak link. Sabine Hass is little known in Britain, and died young, but she gives a wonderful performance as Barak’s wife, and Grundheber is most moving as the dyer himself. Ben Heppner was only at the start of his recording career, but the lyrical freedom of his voice is very satisfying.

DECCA (2 DVDs) Sung in German Recorded 1992

Conductor: Georg Solti. Director: Götz Friedrich. Designers: Rolf & Marianne Glittenburg
Vienna Philharmonic
Eva Marton (Dyer’s Wife), Cheryl Studer (Empress), Thomas Moser (Emperor),
Robert Hale (Barak), Marjana Lipovšek (Nurse), Bryn Terfel (Messenger).

This recording was made live at Salzburg, and it is difficult to avoid a slight sense of disappointment with the visual side of the staging. It just seems a bit dull – Japanese in basic theme. The cast is generally good, though Moser is vocally lightweight as the Emperor. Marton sometimes seems an undisciplined singer, but this time she is admirably controlled. Robert Hale makes a wonderful Barak, very sympathetic, while still looking young and lithe. Marjana Lipovšek gives a surprisingly lyrical, though still baleful performance as the nurse. It is nice to see young Bryn Terfel turning up in the small but important role of the Spirit Messenger. He and Lipovšek get the performance off to a highly dramatic start.

The Cast

 of a youth
 a dyer
Barak's hunchback brother
Barak's one-armed brother
Barak's one-eyed brother
Barak's wife
 of the South Eastern Islands
 his wife, daughter of Keikobad
First Servant
Guardian of the threshold
 to the Empress
Second Servant
Spirit Messenger
 from Keikobad
Third Servant
Voice from above
Voice of a Falcon

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