Opera in three acts by Richard Strauss
The emperor of the south-east islands hunted down a white gazelle, which turned into a beautiful young woman. She was the daughter of the powerful spirit prince Keikobad and from her mother she had inherited her propensity towards human beings. She becomes the emperor’s wife but is still looked after by the woman who has been her nurse from infancy. The marriage remains childless and the empress has no shadow. Every month, Keikobad, who is becoming increasingly angry, sends a spirit messenger to the nurse to enquire about the empress. There are only three days left before the time limit of one year runs out; if the empress does not have a shadow by then, she must return to the realm of spirits and the emperor will turn to stone. This has been ordered by Keikobad and related to the empress by the falcon who once helped the emperor hunt her. The empress beseeches the nurse to find a shadow for her to rescue her husband. Both set out on their way to the humans. Barak, the dyer is good-natured and hard-working. He provides for his brothers and his wife, who is young and pretty but dissatisfied. This marriage is also fruitless. The empress and the nurse enter the dyer’s shabby house and offer their services to the woman. While the dyer is at the market, the nurse uses magic charm to arouse in the dyer’s wife a vision of wealth and prosperity which can be hers in return for her shadow. An agreement is reached. From the frying pan in which fish produced by the nurse’s magic is gently cooking, the dyer’s wife hears the voices of her unborn children. When the dyer returns, he finds the marriage camp is divided. The guard’s song glorifies matrimony and the blessings of children.
The empress has still not acquired a shadow. In a new magic spell the nurse tries to tempt the young woman with the phantom of a handsome youth. Barak, who is returning home, senses the spectre in his house. The red falcon leads the emperor to the falconer’s house but the empress is not there. He watches her return home, secretly and with the scent of humans clinging to her. The emperor cannot bring himself to kill her though he assumes she has been unfaithful. In the dyer’s house, the nurse mixes a sleeping potion for the dyer. Once again she works magic to make the youth appear. Tormented by feelings of guilt, the woman wakes up the dyer, reviles him and leaves the house with the nurse. The empress sees in a dream the emperor entering a sepulchre-like cafe in the rocks. His heart has already turned to stone. The empress wakes up with a start. She realises that the emperor and Barak are heading to their doom and she is to blame. In the dyer’s house the nurse’s demonic game reaches its climax. The dyer’s wife speaks without restraint. She accuses herself of adultery and confesses to Barak that she has sold her shadow. Driven by greater powers than his own, the dyer raises the sword against his wife. The dyer’s wife drops to her knees in front of him and humbles herself. The earth opens, a powerful force of water rushes in and engulfs the couple. The nurse rescues herself and the empress in a canoe which appears by magic.
Separated from each other Barak and his wife languish in the dark vaults of the temple. A voice calls them to come up. The empress, slumbering in her canoe, arrives in front of the temple and is also summoned before court. A spirit messenger bars the nurse’s way into the temple. Keikobad banishes her to the humans she hates so much. Inside the temple the empress catches sight of the emperor, who has almost completely turned to stone by this stage. The guardian of the threshold urges her to drink the water of life in order to acquire a shadow that way. However, she does not wish to win her own happiness through the suffering of other people. By virtue of her self-mastery she has passed the test. Her body casts a long shadow. In the rejoicing of the reunited couples the voices of their unborn children can be heard.