From the YouTube Music Video Archives: Die Frau ohne Schatten by Richard Strauss, direced by Georg Solti

The Woman Without a Shadow is one of the great works – for me, *the* great work – of all the collaberations of Richard Strauss and the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The opera premiered in Vienna in 1919 to what was apparently an unenthusiastic audience. This is difficult for me to believe, as Strauss and von Hofmannsthal had already produced Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, and Ariadne auf Naxos, which however controversial they may have been at their premiers, surely must have been understood as works of genius. Or maybe not? Perhaps someone out there with more knowledge than I can explain this to me.

In any case, Die Frau ohne Schatten begin with the most awesome chords in the entire repetoire – not among the works of Strauss, but in all opera. No I don’t know them all, so I could be wrong. But I doubt it. These opening chords sound like Godzilla or one of those Transformer things preparing to crush anything and everything in its path. And then the score pirouettes, and out pour some of the most tender melodies in the entire repetoire – very, very quickly. You think you’re about to catch the tune, and then it disappears like a fox in the forest, or a monk under his cowl … something like that. It’s just the most amazing music … don’t deprive yourself of it any longer.

Here is a synopsis from Wikipedia:

The opera’s story is set in the mythical empire of the Southeastern Islands and involves five principal characters: the Emperor (tenor), the Empress (soprano), her Nurse (mezzo-soprano or contralto), Barak, a lowly dyer (bass-baritone), and the Dyer’s Wife, (dramatic soprano). A sixth character, Keikobad, King of the Spirit Realm and father to the Empress, sets the plot in motion, but never appears on stage. The Empress is not human: she was captured by the Emperor in the form of a gazelle. She assumed human shape and he married her, but she has no shadow. This symbolizes her inability to bear children. Keikobad has decreed that unless the Empress gains a shadow before the end of the twelfth moon, she will be reclaimed by her father and the Emperor will turn to stone.

And more specifically, the first act shown in this and the following excerpts:

Scene 1

It is dawn, outside the bedchambers of the Emperor and Empress. The Messenger of Keikobad arrives, and tells the Empress’ Nurse that the Empress must acquire a shadow within three days, or will be forcibly returned to his realm, and the Emperor turned to stone. The Nurse is excited about the prospect of returning to the spirit world, since she hates humans and having to dwell with them. The Messenger leaves and the Emperor emerges from his bedchamber. He departs on a three-day hunting trip, seeking his favorite falcon, which he drove away for attacking a gazelle that later turned into the Empress. He leaves his wife to the Nurse’s care. The Empress emerges from her chamber and reminisces about times when she had the ability to turn into any creature she wanted; it is revealed that after being attacked by the red falcon that the Emperor is seeking, she lost a talisman that gave transformation powers, and on which was inscribed a curse that foresaw the fate she and the Emperor are about to face if she does not acquire a shadow. The red falcon appears and warns the Empress about it and begs the Nurse to help her get a shadow. The Nurse, who is steeped in magic, suggests descending to the mortal world and finding a woman who will sell her shadow to the Empress.

Scene 2

Barak, an old dyer, shares his hut with his Wife and his three brothers: the One-Eyed Man, the One-Armed Man, and the Hunchback. The three brothers fight about a stolen item and are separated by the Wife, who throws at them a bucket of water. The brothers-in-law then argue with the Wife. Barak enters and stops the argument. The Wife wants to have her in-laws thrown out, but her husband refuses. The Dyer desires children, but his Wife fears the responsibility and has secretly sworn not to have any. The Dyer and his brothers leave, and the Empress and the Nurse arrive in disguise. The Wife wants them out of her house but the Nurse conjures up visions of luxury and promises them to the Wife in return for her shadow. The Wife agrees to deny her husband for three days during which the Nurse and the Empress will live at the Dyer’s hut as poor relatives who have come to work as servants. Barak approaches and the Wife is worried that dinner is not ready, the Nurse once more uses her magic to have everything ready, including the separation of Barak’s bed. The Nurse and Empress disappear, while the Wife hears the offstage Voices of Unborn Children lamenting, which emerge from the fish that are cooking on the fire. The Dyer returns, to find he is barred from his marital bed; he initially considers this as a good omen, for he knows that women act strangely “during the first days”, assuming that his Wife might be pregnant, he hears the Town Watchmen sing of conjugal love and agrees to sleep on the floor.

Clip #4 below is the most amazing duet for bass and soprano ever written, completed by the most beautifully orchestrated passage … ever. Think I’ve gone too far with the superlatives? Listen.

[Clip #2] [Clip #3][Clip #4][Clip #5][Clip #6][Clip #7]


  1. Anonymous says

    I'll have a listen later. I've never developed much of an appreciation of opera. It looked nice, although was hard to make out on my dark screen.

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