Opera in three acts - 1919

Composer Richard Strauss · Text by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
In German with German and English surtitles

Saturday, 11. April 2020
12:00 pm – 04:00 pm

Duration est. 4 hours

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The daughter of the King of the Spirits has been floating in an in-between state since the human Emperor conquered her: She is neither a spirit nor a human. A woman without a shadow – which means a woman who is infertile. A threat hangs over the Empress and Emperor like a punishment for a great guilt: If she does not become fully human, he will turn to stone. Her panic-stricken search for a shadow, accompanied by her scheming nurse, takes the Empress to a woman who refuses her husband's advances. She is prepared to sell her shadow for the seductive promise of eternal youth. However, the prospect of the transaction does not make the Empress happy.

Inspired by Oriental fairy-tales and with an admiring glance at Mozart's Zauberflöte, the successful partnership of Strauss and Hofmannsthal created a puzzling, massive work heavy with symbolism and powerful sounds which constantly demands interpretation: is it wallowing in magical worlds whilst the old era is destroyed in the First World War? The pathway of trials taken by two couples on which the women overcome their own natures through subjecting themselves to the merciless law of renewal and decay? A study of the female psyche shortly after Freud's postulation of sexual neuroses? Or perhaps the spiritual voyage of a woman through her fears and guilt feelings at the end of which everyone comes together again on the threshold of the eternal father.


Ever since he won her heart, the Emperor has lived with the Empress in a realm remote from the world of human beings. He desires her every night, he leaves her every morning to go hunting. She then flees into sleep and dreams of how she, the daughter of the King of the Spirits, Keikobad, is able transform herself into any animal she wishes – as was the case before the Emperor married her. She would love again and again to be the wild animal the Emperor catches with his falcons. They are both unaware of the threat which hovers over them: if the Emperor fails to succeed in fathering a child with the Empress within a year, he must turn to stone and she must return to the court of her powerful father. The nurse, who lives with the Empress, gives her father’s messenger the same information month after month: the Empress does not cast a shadow, which means she has not given birth to a child.

Act One

A messenger again asks questions of the nurse and announces that the deadline is due to expire in three days. When the Emperor sets out to go hunting for three days, the nurse does not tell him of the danger which threatens. Nor does she tell the Empress of the ultimatum. The Empress, however, hears the Emperor’s favourite falcon bemoaning the fact that his master faces the threat of being turned to stone. She begs the nurse to help her to acquire a shadow in order thus to save the Emperor’s life. The nurse knows of a possibility to cheat a person out of a shadow. She sets out for the human world with the Empress.

The dyer, Barak, lives in very confined space with his wife and his three adult brothers, whom he looks after. The wife is weary of her life with the undemanding Barak and threatens for the umpteenth time to leave him. Although Barak would dearly love to have children, the marriage has so far been barren. His wife blames him for this and rejects his advances.

When Barak leaves for work, the nurse and the Empress offer their services to his wife and describe for her a life of riches and beauty which could be had for the cheap price of her shadow. Suspicious at first, she then agrees to the deal, willingly renouncing her prospects of motherhood in exchange. When she is alone again she is overcome with feelings of guilt. When Barak comes home, however, she does not have supper with him and sleeps in a different bed. Barak is amazed by his wife’s behaviour, but accepts her decision.

Act Two

Barak has scarcely left the house the following morning before the nurse is urging his wife to be unfaithful to him. She tempts the woman with an apparition of a young man from her most secret thoughts. Before she can fall victim to temptation, Barak returns from the market, surrounded by his brothers and a crowd of children, whom he invites to share in their meal. Barak’s feast disgusts his wife. He again responds to her scornful comments with forbearance.

Guided by the red falcon, the Emperor arrives at night at the falcon house in which the Empress planned to spend the days of his absence. The house seems deserted. The Emperor sees the Empress returning from the human world. He is jealous and wants to kill her but cannot do it and flees.

Barak’s wife nervously waits for her husband to leave. The dyer demands something to drink and the nurse gives him a sleeping potion. She then again offers his wife the young man for pleasure, but the wife rejects him flirtatiously. She is suddenly gripped by panic and drags Barak from the depths of sleep. She overwhelms him with reproaches and leaves the house to go into town with the nurse. Barak does not understand what has happened to him. The Empress feels sorry for him.

During the night the Empress is troubled by nightmares. Barak’s tortured face appears to her first, then she dreams of the Emperor’s death. She sees him disappearing into a tomb-like cave. The Empress is roused from her dreams and feels guilty and responsible for the unhappiness of both men.

Barak’s wife boasts to her husband about the fact that she has been unfaithful to him several times in his own house. She then tells him that she plans to break faith with him and announces that she has sold her shadow and with it all unborn children she might have had. The nurse urges the Empress to grab the shadow of the dyer’s wife for herself. The Empress refuses. She wants to undo the deal. Barak thinks that his wife is mad and is about to kill her. Faced with the raised sword in Barak’s hand, his wife sees him through different eyes. For the first time she sees in him a beloved husband. She tells Barak that she has not done what she confessed and is prepared to accept his punishment. When Barak raises his hand to strike the deadly blow, a sudden flood drags him and his wife into the depths. The nurse leads the Empress to safety.

Act Three

Barak and his wife, separated from each other, are prisoners deep inside the earth. Each of them thinks of the other with love and regrets not having given happiness. A voice announces first to Barak and then to his wife that they are free to leave. They both begin to search for each other.

The Empress and the nurse arrive at a gate which seems familiar to the Empress. She feels that her father is calling her to the judgement hall. The nurse warns her of mortal danger on the other side of the door and tries to persuade her to flee. The Empress wants to face judgement, she bids the nurse farewell and crosses the threshold. The nurse wants to follow her beloved Empress. Keikobad’s messenger refuses to let her enter and bans her for ever into the human world.

On the other side of the gate the Empress calls on her father to reveal himself. She demands her right to face judgement and her punishment and declares her wish to belong to the humans. Her father does not answer, instead the image of the Emperor, turned to stone, appears to the Empress. Although she suffers with him, she refuses to drink of the Water of Life and thus still acquire the shadow of Barak’s wife.
With this renunciation she brings about a change: the Emperor comes back to life. She herself casts a shadow. Barak and his wife, who has regained her shadow, find each other again. The voices of unborn children can be heard amongst the jubilation of both couples, a possibility for a distant future.

Premiere of Richard Strauss's "Die Frau ohne Schatten" on November 21, 2013 in the Nationaltheater

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