The Woman without a Shadow (Die Frau ohne Schatten) (opera in three acts).
Performed in German (with synchronised Russian supertitles)
World premiere: 10 Oct 1919 Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg
Premiere of this production: 16 Nov 2009
The performance has 2 intermissions
Running time: 4 hours 20 minutes
The Woman without a Shadow
by Richard Strauss
is one of the most
sophisticated scores for the orchestra. That is why we decided
to stage it only after we devoted nearly a decade to exploring
the Western European repertoire in order to grasp the style
and the tradition of the most eminent composers
of the XIX and XX centuries. This opera features
a bright, blooming, colourful orchestra, whilst large and melodic
arias are complemented by recitatives in a number
of unusual ways. In this opera, Strauss had reached
some extraordinary depths of sonority and expression.
Without doubt, this opera was a top of novelty in terms
of musical language of the time. In our days, having
become the classical masterpiece of the beginning
of the XX century, the music continues to impress with
a great effect the composer achieved by realising
The main opera story
as sophisticated as the music does. The way
it develops is complicated by appearances
of non-trivial symbols, allegories, mixing up
between “noble heroes” and “common people”. All this
means that you are unlikely to get bored
as the story&mbsp;develops. However, beware that
the main idea behind all that is as simple as noble:
one should not attempt building their own fortune
on the others’ misfortune, while the proper dignity
is achieved only through self-sacrifice.
The production is staged by Jonathan Kent,
who is already familiar to our audiences through
his production of another opera by Strauss
on our stage: Elektra. This production was
very well received by opera-lovers in St Petersburg
as well as in Baden-Baden and Moscow (within
the framework of the “Golden Mask” festival).
Journalists noted the unusual staging, scenery, costumes and lighting
that all supported the realising of the myth
on the stage and creating an environment, which
is adequate to Strauss’ music. The same team works
in St Petersburg on The Woman
without a Shadow production.
The opera Die Frau ohne Schatten is Richard Strauss' most enigmatic and mystical work. The composer himself included Die Frau ohne Schatten, not without justification, among his best and most loved works.
The libretto for the opera was written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Writing the plot, he drew inspiration from various stories and legends that included tales from the Arabian Nights, Indian, Persian and Chinese fairytale motifs as well as tales by the Grimm brothers Raimund and Novalis. The libretto is intensely rich in symbols and mysterious hints, which, when one unravels them, also provide intellectual pleasure.
In our own time, the New York Times reviewer wrote that audiences will be proud to have seen Die Frau ohne Schatten for twenty-five years to come.
The opera Die Frau ohne Schatten has one of the most difficult scores ever written in the history of music: Strauss engaged an immense orchestra, over one hundred musicians, and made incredibly exhausting demands of the soloists.
The world premiere of the opera Die Frau ohne Schatten came on 10 October 1919 in Vienna, at the height of post-war problems connected with food and supplies, and met with a rather cool reception from the public. But subsequently this opera was never again staged at the world's leading opera houses and became a kind of the strength of power of the cast and of the theatre's standing.
The Mariinsky Theatre production is the first production of Die Frau ohne Schatten in Russia.
The Emperor of the South-East Islands is married to the daughter of a fairy that he captured while out hunting; once he injured a gazelle which transformed into the beautiful young woman. Having become the Emperor's wife, she did not, however, become human. She casts no shadow and so cannot become a mother. There is a connection between having a shadow and motherhood, as the former is an Omen and Destiny. The Nurse is pleased at this as she despises all that is human. Keikobad, ruler of the Spirit Realm and the Empress' father, sends his envoy who holds talks with the Nurse. A falcon flies to the Empress, having been on a hunt with the Emperor when he shot at a while gazelle. The falcon informs her that "Time will soon run out, woman will not cast a shadow – and thus the Emperor will be turned to stone." The Empress understands the allusion: she has gone beyond the confines of the demonic world, but the Emperor's egotistical love has not surrounded her with humanity. She is between two worlds: one that does not wish to let her go, and one that will not accept her. And this curse will exert its power not over her, but rather over him. The Empress wishes to acquire a shadow whatever the cost. She is assisted in this by the Nurse, who proposes buying a person's shadow. The Empress and the Nurse set off and come to the family of Barak the Dyer.
Barak is no longer young, but he is hale and hearty, as an ox. He works for the sake of his three brothers and his Wife, who is young and attractive but dissatisfied with her life with Barak. Children would be a divine blessing for him, though this marriage, too, has produced no children. The Empress and the Nurse ask the servant to direct them to the Dyer's Wife.
The Nurse offers the Dyer's Wife fine clothes and a lover in exchange for her surrendering her shadow and her fertility. With magic spells and gestures, the old procuress ensnares the young woman and the Dyer's wife concludes the bargain. The Empress barely understands this tainted covenant, thanks to which she will acquire her heart's desire. But the deal is done, the guests vanish suddenly and the Dyer's Wife is once more left alone. The voices of her unborn children can be heard coming from the pay where five fish are being fried, lamenting mournfully from the darkness. The unsuspecting Dyer returns home. Barak and his Wife each go to their separate beds.
The trials begin. The Nurse tempts the young woman with a spectre of a languishing and ardent young boy. As soon as the Dyer leaves, the youth appears in his house. Barak doesn't know what is going on, but is kind but foolish heart becomes heavier and heavier. He feels that something is amiss, as if someone is calling on him to help. The Empress is involved in this evil scheme. At night, in fear-filled dreams she sees her husband walking through an empty forest, alone, eaten up by egotistical suspicions. His heart has already turned to stone. She awakes from her prophetic dream, but her days are more dangerous than her nights. There is no room for a creature from the Spirit Realm in the world of men. Gradually the Empress overcomes her fears and begins to sense her guilt before Barak. The third night falls: The Nurse, in order to complete the pact, calls on devilish forces for help. Heavy mists descend all around. A cry of horror emerges from the mouths of Barak's brothers, while the lips of Barak's wife produce insane, wild words. She accuses herself of something she has not yet done – of marital infidelity – and says that she has sold her shadow and spurned her unborn children. The brothers light a fire and become convinced of what has been said: the young woman stands before them as a witch, casting no shadow. The Nurse rejoices – the pact has come into force. One has surrendered her shadow; the other must take it for herself. At this terrible and decisive moment, Barak seems to grow taller; his lips, which to this point have uttered no wicked word, pronounce the death penalty on his Wife. A glittering sword appears in his hands. At the sight of the sword, the Nurse understands that higher forces have entered the game, ones with which she cannot compete. Instead of grabbing the shadow, the Empress drags the Nurse away to avoid being spattered in human blood. The Wife falls at Barak's feet, in supplication and mad frenzy holds the sword above her own self. The fates are woven together and voices drown each other out – everything around is suddenly under some magic power. The Earth rotates and swallows man and wife; Barak's house crashes to the ground. A huge swell of water rises from the depths, The Nurse, shielding the Empress with her cloak, seats her in a boat that has magically appeared.
The first trial has been completed, and those who have completed it set out for the Spirit Realm. The boat with the Empress and the Nurse arrives at the gates of the Temple. She knows: she is being called to judgement. In the depths, utterly unaware of one another, Barak and his Wife are struggling in their confinement. The voice of one of the spirits calls them upwards. They rise and think of one another with tenderness: he forgiving her, and she begging forgiveness, humbly and, for the first time, lovingly. They rise above, trying to find each other. Here they meet the Nurse, standing before the closed gates of the Temple. The messenger of the spirits guards the entrance from her. She is infuriated. The Empress is standing in the depths of the Temple and awaits the court. But who is it that will judge her? Is it the King of Spirits, her stern father? A curtain screens his face. The Empress' courageous supplication goes unanswered. There is only the gentle gurgling of the water of the Golden Source, the Source of Life. "Drink," says a voice, "Drink, and the Wife's shadow will be yours." The Empress hears the voices of the separated man and wife and steps back without having let her lips touch the Golden Source. The waters recede. The Emperor sits upon a stone throne, unmoving, turned to stone. It is only in his eyes, it would appear, that life still lingers. The Source of Life again begins to ring out at the statue's feet. Sweet voices from above can be heard: "Say ‘I want it' and the woman's shadow will be yours, it will rise, come to life and go with you." The Empress freezes to the spot, battling with her own self. The barely heard words "I don't want it!" at last come from her lips. She is victorious, as the mother before the throne of Solomon was victorious, prepared to lose her child that he might live. She is victorious for her own self and for the sake of one who would, without her self-sacrifice, would otherwise remain petrified forever. And for the sake of two others who, having suffered so much, must rise upwards. A distinct shadow falls on the floor of the Temple. The voices of the unborn children can be heard rejoicing
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