Major Operas | Die Frau ohne Schatten by Richard Strauss | Turn of the Century
Like Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Frau ohne Schatten had a tempestuous genesis. The idea itself stemmed from the period immediately after the premiere of Der Rosenkavalier, but Hofmannsthal’s continual flood of ideas compounded by Strauss’s curmudgeonliness ensured the project stalled regularly.
The start of the First World War did nothing to help, and it was not until 1917 that the opera was completed and 1919 before it premiered in Vienna. It was poorly received – viewed as evidence that Strauss belonged to a bygone age and did not possess the tools or temperament to write music relevant to the time.
Keikobad, ruler of the spirit world, gave his daughter a talisman to transform herself into an animal. Hunted by the emperor’s falcon, she changed from a gazelle into a beautiful woman with whom the emperor fell in love, but the falcon flew off with the talisman.
Every month a messenger enquires whether the new empress casts a shadow (can have children). The twelfth messenger announces that, unless she has one within three days, she will return to Keikobad and the emperor will turn to stone. The empress and her nurse, who despises mortals, descend to the mortal world. Barak, a dyer, and his bitter wife are childless. The nurse tempts her with riches and lovers, with the empress and herself as her servants for three days, if she will sell her shadow. The wife hears the voices of her unborn children, but refuses to sleep with Barak.
Although the empress has doubts, the nurse summons up a lover for the wife. Barak returns unexpectedly with his three brothers. His wife will not eat, but the ever-generous Barak distributes food to beggars and neighbours. The emperor smells the human world on the empress and the nurse as they return to the falcon house. He cannot bring himself to kill her.
The nurse drugs Barak and brings back the vision. Pulling back at the last moment, the wife pours water over Barak and cruelly rejects him. The empress knows she has wronged Barak and dreams of her husband turning to stone. The wife tells Barak she has sold her shadow. The empress, however, sees blood on it and refuses to touch it. The nurse conjures up a sword for Barak. The wife desperately tries to retract her words, telling him to kill her quickly. The house collapses and waters pour through it.
Barak and his wife, separated, yearn for one another. A voice calls them up into the light. The nurse begs the empress not to enter the Spirit Temple, but she insists on finding the waters of life for her husband. The nurse curses mankind. The Spirit Messenger sends her screaming back to the mortal world. The empress refuses to drink the golden waters, even when she sees the emperor turned to stone. Her...
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