Die Frau ohne Schatten, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, March 2014Posted on 15 March 2014
Frau ohne Schatten is Richard Strauss’s Magic Flute, where two couples on different levels undergo severe trials before man and woman truly find one another. Like Flute there are tripartite divisions, but rather than analyse Hofmannsthal’s mysterious story, as modified by and interpreted in Strauss’s extraordinary score, let us turn to this production by German director Claus Guth, with designs by Christian Schmidt and lighting by Olaf Winter, first shown at La Scala in March 2012.
The title character — the woman without a shadow — is the Empress, and Guth has taken the whole thing to be going on in her unconscious while she sleeps. At the start we see her lying in bed wracked by nightmares — at the end awaking from a dream like Alice in Wonderland — and Guth’s interpretation is facilitated by the fact that the opera contains no duet between Empress and Emperor.
In Hofmannsthal’s creation, the Empress unites with her husband only in bed at night — his nights are her days, his days her nights — and the absence of a shadow represents the irreality of her existence. By extension it also signifies an inability to give birth, and in Act III when her trials are over we see numerous children with gazelle heads, small versions of the Empress in her unconscious dream world.
The original story is that the Emperor and his falcon wounded and captured her in the form of a gazelle, and both animals appear on stage, as does her father Keikobad, normally an unseen presence in the opera. He appears throughout as an old man with a stick and magnificent stag’s head, and towards the end of Act III, in dual form as a stag and man in German judge’s costume, he presides, Sarastro-like, over the reuniting of Emperor with Empress, and Barak the Dyer with his wife.
The Dyer’s wife is a central character in this opera, sometimes misrepresented in a shrewish, one-dimensional way, yet she is a poet so frustrated by Barak’s prosaic and overwhelming charity that she might be persuaded to relinquish her shadow and enjoy the delights of an unreal passion. Only such a person could come out with lines describing Barak as a mule who walks along the abyss untroubled by the depths and the mystery, and her portrayal by Elena Pankratova was one of the glories of this performance, singing as she did with huge power and lyricism. Power there was too, in limitless quantities, from Johan Botha as the Emperor, a small role, but my goodness he was wonderful.
Both these singers performed in the first outing of this production at La Scala, as did Michaela Schuster as the Nurse and Emily Magee as the Empress, both rendering their characters with sustained strength and nuance. The one principal addition to the Milan cast was Johan Reuter as Barak, whose long warm notes rendered the faith, hope and charity that this paragon of humanity — a shadow of Strauss himself — represents.
For the music itself, the Royal Opera House brought in Semyon Bychkov, whose conducting contrasted a sympathetic accompaniment for the singers with immense power from the vast resources that overflowed the orchestra pit. In the Amphitheatre the many orchestral interludes came over superbly, and the dénouement to Act II when the Dyer’s wife, standing on a plinth in this production, makes her sudden reversal denying she has yet done anything wrong, was utterly riveting. As the Nurse sings, Übermächte sind im Spiel (Higher powers are in play), the orchestral sound took us to another world.
This conductor and cast would be hard to beat, and it is arguably the finest new production of a Strauss opera that Covent Garden has staged in recent years.
There are six further performances ending on April 2, and a live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 29 March from 17:45 — for details click here.