- Starting Time: 4 pm
- Two intermissions
Venue: Semperoper Dresden
Free introductory talk
- held in the Semper Opera House cellar 45 minutes before curtain-up
Inspired by oriental fairy tales and with an admiring glance to Mozart’s »The Magic Flute«, Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal created their fourth joint opera, »Die Frau ohne Schatten« (The Woman without a Shadow), in 1919. This massive work is as enigmatic as it is fascinating, rich in symbolism and with a powerful score. Reflecting events at the time of its creation, in particular the devastating experiences of the First World War and the emerging insights of psychoanalysis, the libretto poses the vital question of how, in the face of millions of deaths and emotional paralysis, we can once again find love and our sense of humanity.
And so we follow the Empress, the fairy daughter of the spirit king Keikobad, who was captured by the Emperor when in the form of a gazelle and taken as his wife. She is searching for her shadow, which will bring her fertility and the chance of becoming human. When she realises that this will entail her stealing the shadow of the wife of Barak the Dyer and thereby destroy their happy marriage, she gives up – at the risk of causing her husband, the Emperor, to be turned to stone.
But it is precisely this insight into the power of human love and its capacity for change that enables the Empress to become fully human and bring the fairy tale to a happy conclusion.
The Empress was once hunted in the form of a gazelle by her husband, the Emperor, with the aid of his falcon. She is the daughter of the stern and powerful Spirit King Keikobad, who has set her a one-year time limit: if she does not cast a shadow during this time frame and consequently remains barren, the Emperor will turn to stone and the Empress will return to her father.
A messenger of Keikobad asks the Empress’s nurse whether the Empress now casts a shadow. When she answers no, he announces the expiry of the time limit within three days. The nurse conceals the visit, but the Empress learns from the falcon that the Emperor will soon turn to stone. She begs the nurse to help her. The nurse proposes that she acquire a shadow in the world of men. There they meet the dyer Barak and his wife who, like the Empress, was compelled to marry and longs for freedom. Despite the fact that Barak desperately wants children, the marriage has remained childless thus far. The nurse persuades the young woman to give her shadow to the Empress. Alone, the dyer’s wife is plagued by guilt and hears the voices of the unborn children.
When Barak leaves the house in the morning, the nurse conjures a youth to seduce the young woman, but her plan is thwarted by her husband’s unexpected return. The Emperor is now looking for the Empress; when he finds her among humans, he feels betrayed and threatens to kill her. The nurse gives Barak a sleeping potion and once again conjures the young man, but the dyer’s wife refuses him, wakes Barak, and confronts him with numerous reproaches. The Empress is tormented by pity for Barak. At the same time, she sees her husband turning to stone in a dream. She feels guilty towards both men. Barak's wife provokes her husband by confessing her alleged adultery and by renouncing her shadow, preventing her from having children. Her despondent husband threatens to kill her. The nurse asks the Empress to take the woman’s shadow at last, but she refuses. The dyer’s wife admits to pretending she had committed adultery and surrenders to her fate. When Barak is about to make the fatal blow, the earth opens up beneath them and they are plunged into the depths.
Barak and his wife find themselves in separate chambers. They long for one another and repent of their guilt. A voice announces to them that the path to each other is open, but it leads them both in different directions. The Empress is determined to submit herself to the judgement of her father Keikobad in order to save her husband. She splits from the nurse and enters Keikobad’s kingdom of stone. The nurse is sent back to the human world that she despises. The Empress hears the wandering Barak and his wife outside the rocks. In vain, she asks Keikobad to judge her. When she is offered to drink of the water of life, which would enable her to obtain the shadow, she refuses. She would rather die with the Emperor than incur guilt. The Emperor then appears, awakened to life through her renunciation, and the Empress begins to cast a shadow. Barak and his wife, who has regained her shadow, are reunited. The couple’s rejoicing is mingled with the voices of the unborn children.