Die Frau ohne Schatten, Staatsoper Berlin, Festtage, Schiller Theater, April 2017

This marvellous Claus Guth production, first staged at La Scala in 2012, and at Covent Garden three years ago, has now found its way to Berlin under the baton of Zubin Mehta, who produced a terrific performance of Richard Strauss’s score, with its combination of gentle chamber episodes with mighty moments of emotional transformation.

All images Staatsoper Berlin/ Hans Jörg Michel

Despite a smattering of boos, Guth’s production is a stunning success. He has taken the whole thing to be going on in the unconscious mind of the Empress — the woman without a shadow — an interpretation facilitated by the absence of any duet between Empress and Emperor. From lying in bed at the start, wracked by nightmares, she finally awakes from a dream.

Indeed in Hofmannsthal’s story, 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. 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.

Gazelle, Empress, Amme

The gazelle is the form in which the Emperor and his falcon originally wounded and captured her, and both animals are seen on stage, along with her father Keikobad, appearing as an old man with a magnificent stag’s head. Towards the end of Act III, he is also represented in dual form as a judge, presiding Sarastro-like over the reuniting of the estranged couples, Emperor with Empress, and Barak the Dyer with his wife. This is after all Strauss’s Zauberflöte.

The Dyer’s wife is a central character, a woman of poetic inclinations frustrated by Barak’s prosaic and overwhelming charity towards his three deformed brothers. She has become shrewish, describing Barak as a mule who walks along the abyss untroubled by the depths and the mystery, and the Empress’s Amme sees her as someone who might be persuaded to relinquish her shadow so as to enjoy passionate delights with a beautiful young man that she conjures up.

Falcon, Emperor, Empress, Stag

The role requires hugely expressive vocal power that Iréne Theorin delivered in spades, as did Camilla Nylund as a gentle-hearted Empress. The duality of these two women is brought out in the later stages of the production, as if they are almost mirror reflections of one another. The transition from the Emperor’s realm to the base earth is accomplished by the sorcery of the Amme, so well performed by Michaela Schuster who took the same role at both La Scala and Covent Garden. Completing the cast of five principals was the wonderfully heartfelt Barak of Wolfgang Koch, with Burkhard Fritz showing gloriously unforced lyricism in as the Emperor.

Empress as Gazelle, with children and Emperor

Complementing these five was a fine cast of brothers and voices off, and a notable tenor by Jun-Sang Han as the young man. The beautifully expressed movements of Falcon (Victoria McConnell), Gazelle (Sarah Grether) and Old Stag (Paul Lorenger) helped make this production sheer magic.

Strauss’s combination of chamber music with eviscerating power from the orchestra, in moments such as the end of Act II when the Amme realises that “Übermächte sind im Spiel”, made this a riveting experience, and even in the first interval one lady volunteered that it left her “sprachlos”.

For further information on this year’s Festtage click here.

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