Die Frau ohne Schatten - Richard Strauss - Christoph von Dohnányi
Royal Opera House - Covent Garden

I was at the ROH to see Richard Strauss' opera Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow). The opera was composed in 1914-17. The libretto was by Hugo van Hofmannsthal. Christoph von Dohnanyi was the conductor; he projected the power of the score with such brute force that the climaxes rocked the theatre to its foundation!

And the story goes: The God Keiksbad had a daughter by a human to whom he gave a talisman, which enabled her to transform herself into a bird or animal. In the form of a gazelle, she was hunted down by the Emperor of the South-Eastern Islands. She turned back into a woman and the Emperor fell in love with her. He drove his falcon away for attacking the gazelle and the bird flew off with the talisman. A year after their marriage, she is no loner part of the spirit world nor the human world, which leaves her without a shadow and childless. She must find her shadow (the symbol of fertility) to prevent her husband from being turned into stone. In the end she earns her shadow through the unselfishness of her actions.

The other couple in the opera concerns the unfortunate, long-suffering dyer Barak and his wife, who is forever quarrelling with him about being childless. Her Nurse (a really malignant battle-axe in Cruella de Ville war paint) tries to convince her to sell her shadow for untold luxury.

So the story is basically about two couple trying to gain martial fulfilment through having children. One of the critics remarked, with respect, that the two ladies (partly to due to their costumes) looked very heavily pregnant! ! Barak's wife (the wife from hell! ) was loosely based on Strauss' own nagging wife, although, in fact, they had a long lasting marriage. In a way, Strauss' opera is a hymn to lasting love (to quote the '60s film "A kind of loving"). It is in some ways a strange opera with touches of supernatural - a voice from above, apparition, spirits and voices of unborn children. Strauss thought his fairytale opera to be the 20th Century equivalent to The Magic Flute.

The costumes were by Ian Falconer and the set(s) by David Hockney. Hockey's decor had a "workshop" look about it with a skeletal hunting lodge crash - landing on stage at one point. Gauze and canvas drop cloths looked tawdry and the lighting was poor.

The Emperor was performed by Glenn Winslade and the Empress seeking her shadow by Deborah Voigt. The voice of the Falcon was Gail Pearson; the Spirit Messenger was played by Christopher Booth-Jones. Alan Titus played the role of Barak; Gabriele Schnaut played Barak's wife and the Nurse by Jane Henschel.

Gabriele Schnaut's portrayal of Barak's wife is infinitely touching. She is a simple woman who is unhappy, but does not truly know why.


Verinha Ottoni.


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