Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, London, 31st March 2014 4.5 stars

The 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss's birth is marked and celebrated by the Royal Opera with a new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow). Strauss completed the opera during World War I, and it received its premiere in 1919. This new production, staged by Claus Guth, is new to Covent Garden but it is a co-production with La Scala, Milan where it premiered in 2012.

Die Frau ohne Schatten (referred to as Frosch in some of Strauss's correspondence but regarded by him as his greatest achievement), was conceived by the composer and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal with Mozart's Die Zauberflöte--that is, a fairytale with moral dimension--in mind. As in Mozart, here too two couples are juxtaposed: the Emperor and the Empress, and working man Barak and his wife. However, in Mozart the goal is supposedly Enlightenment, while in Strauss the search is for fertility (that is, for shadow). If the plot of Die Zauberflöte is slightly confusing--initially the Three Ladies of the Queen of the Night appear as representatives of good--then the Hofmannsthal story-line is almost impossible. At the 1919 premier the libretto was preceded by a printed introduction that, according to critics, "made the confusing yet even more confusing".

The main plot may be summed up as follows: an earthly Emperor has married the daughter of the spirit-god Keikobad. In spite of the marriage, the Empress has no shadow (that is, fertility). Her father sends a messenger commanding her to obtain one within three days, otherwise her husband will be turned to stone. Thus starts the search for a shadow. There are several sub-plots, all of which combine to reach the happy ending which has the Emperor declaring in the final quartet: "Brothers, friends: both casting shadows as they were chosen to do" (the word both refers to the Empress and Barak's Wife).

We could have had two sharply contrasting words portrayed on stage, but director Guth opted for a bleak case study of dream interpretation (thus presumably referring to Freud and his circle who were active in Vienna when Strauss completed the opera). In Guth's interpretation a girl, brought up without a mother and dominated by an overpowering father, is in a marital relationship that she cannot cope with. The two couples in the plot (that is, here in this production) might not be really two couples but only reflections of one and the same couple or different aspects of them. The visual contrast between the worlds of the two childless couples--the fairytale shine of the Emperor and the Empress, and the drudgery of the life of Barak and his wife--is abolished. The colour of the scenery is all bleak and black. Many of the costumes are also black although the Empress (and her alter ego, the gazelle) and the Wife's imaginary lover wear white. There are some striking animal images, that is, people with animal heads (of gazelle, falcon and ram) miming the dream-story with expressive body language. The unborn children appearing in the final scene also wear animal heads (although it is far from clear, why?). A few video images enhance the dream-like concept. However, by and large, we are deprived of the varieties of colour which a fairy tale could have provided.

The score of Die Frau ohne Schatten is one of Strauss's mightiest and most demanding. It draws on the resources of a huge orchestra that includes extensive percussion--several of the percussion players were placed in stall circle boxes on the opening night--an organ, thunder and wind machines, as well as a (long extinct) glass harmonica.

Conductor Semyon Bychkov explains: the score is so powerful, but at the same time so full of beauty and so full of tenderness; it is of such complexity, that no one is able to grasp all of it at the first go, or at the second or at the third; the opera requires an enormous orchestra, and part of the challenge for the conductor is to allow the intricacies of the score to be heard.

With Bychkov conducting and with an excellent cast of singers, musically the performance is exceptional. Of the five main principals, only baritone Johann Reuter (Barak) is new to the production but, nevertheless, gave an assured and convincing portrayal, with majestic lyricism, of the long suffering but loving husband. The other four principal singers – tenor Johan Botha (Emperor), soprano Emily Magee (Empress), soprano Elena Pankratova (Wife) and mezzo soprano Michaela Schuster (Nurse) sang their vocally exceptionally demanding roles in the 2012 La Scala run of the production. Botha is rock solid in the vocal department but we have to believe his words for his passion, his acting does not indicate the emotions he sings about. It is ironic that his character the Emperor is turned into stone (when the Empress does not find a shadow). Magee delivers an astonishing performance (and sings admirably) as the neurotic dreamer, on stage all way through the four-hour performance. Pankratova is occasionally shrill, but so is her character the Wife. Schuster is utterly amazing both vocally and dramatically. Bychkov conducts with passion and lyricism, with grandeur and intimacy, with exemplary technical skills and utmost respect for composer and performers. One cannot ask for more.

By Agnes Kory

Photos: Royal Opera