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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Strauss Project: Die Frau ohne Schatten

Mysticism, marriage and a fish dinner: Strauss' wildest opera explored.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Fish for dinner: Christine Goerke as the Dyer's Wife in the current Metropolitan Opera
production of Die Frau ohne Schatten. Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
Of the fifteen operas written by Richard Strauss none are more complicated, more esoteric or more demanding than Die Frau ohne Schatten. Written during the First World War and premiered in Vienna in 1916, this was the composer’s sixth opera, and his third collaboration with librettist Hugo von Hoffmannsthal. Frau or “Fr-o-sch” as the composer affectionately nicknamed it (the German word for "frog") is a fairy tale for grown-ups, told on a scale that would make Richard Wagner envious.



Die Frau ohne Schatten (the title means "The Woman Without a Shadow") is the story of two very different couples who move through three different planes of existence in their quest for happiness, the isea of which is represented in the libretto by the titular shadow. In this opera, the shadow is a symbol for womanly fertility. When the curtain rises, the Empress, daughter of the fairy king Keikobad has been trapped in an unsatisfying marriage. Her husband, the Emperor of the South Seas is only interested in hunting and sex, in that order. To him, they seem to be one and the same thing.

We learn that the Emperor captured the Empress and married her during one of his hunting excursions, when he shot a stag that, much to his surprise, turned into a beautiful woman. Now, after eleven months, Keikobad has sent a Messenger to find out if his daughter "casts a shadow." "No," her Nurse says, light passes through her as if she were glass." In three days time, the Messenger says, the Emperor will be punished: turned to stone for his hubris in marrying her in the first place.

The Emperor leaves to go hunting, and the Empress learns of his intended fate from his hunting falcon. She enlists her cunning old Nurse (who wants to go backl to the realm of the fairies) to go to the World of Men. There, the Nurse brokers a deal with the Wife of the dyer Barak, an unhappy woman who has no children. In three days time, the Empress will have her shadow. Then, things get complicated when the Empress has a pang of conscience about the Baraks, and when the Emperor is seen in a dream, entering a mysterious temple.

In the third act, both couples are summoned to the temple of Keikobad to be judged. At the opera's climax, as her husband is being slowly petrified, the Empress is offered the shadow. She abruptly refuses. This proves her humanity and gains her a shadow of her very own. All are saved and the opera ends with a quartet backed by a choir of unborn children, singing the praises of their mothers and fathers-to-be.

Strauss didn't. He wrestled with Hofmannsthal's fantasy world and abstract, symbol-laden libretto. He was tasked with not only bringing the five main characters to life but supplying music for such obscure figures as the winged Messenger of Keikobad and the Guardian of the Threshold. The composer worled hard to pump humanity into these  nameless characters (Barak excepted). However, the five leading roles in this opera all cast strong metaphorical shadows, helped by some of the richest and most painstakingly illustrative accompaniment that the composer ever wrote.

The orchestral forces are huge, with violins, violas and cellos all subdivided into playing seperate parts. There are four horns, four Wagner tubas, all the winds you can think of (including that Straussian peculiarity, the Heckelphone), a small army of percussion, two celestas, a glass harmonica and an organ add up to a crowded orchestra pit. And yet, many pages of this opers feature demure, even chamber-like orchestration (a leftover from Ariadne auf Naxos. Throughout, the huge orchestra never drowns out the singers.

In addition to the orchestral demands, Die Frau is hard to cast. Strauss calls for a high heroic baritone for Barak, an upper-register heroic tenor for the Emperor, two dramatic sopranos for the Empress and the Dyer’s Wife (the latter with a heavier voice) and a strong mezzo for the Nurse. Given that list, most opera companies will instead produce Wagner's Die Walküre, which uses a much smaller orchestra. Luckily, directors have relished the challenge of staging Strauss’ mythic fable.

Recording recommendations:
Thanks to the rise of home video, there are a number of productions of Frau that are well worth the viewer's time. A list of reviews of these can be found here on Superconductor.

The advent of recorded classical music brought new life to Die Frau ohne Schatten, which finally found its place in the repertory in the 1950s. The earliest mono recordings were made by Karl Böhm and Joseph Keilberth and are still both available today. My preferences (and in fact, the four recordings I have in my collection) are all listed below.

Vienna Philharmonic cond Karl Bohm (DG, 1977)
This is a live recording that was made with a top-flight cast at the house where this opera premiered. It has a smoking hot cast, with Leonie Rysanoe, Birgit Nilsson, James King and Walter Berry singing the for unlucky protagonists. Karl Bohm, who was a personal friend of Strauss' (the opera Daphne is dedicated to him) conducts a version of the score using standard cuts. This makes a hash of the third act but the singing is great.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Wolfgang Sawallisch (EMI/WBC, 1989)
This was the first complete recording of the opera, made in Munich for EMI. Wolfgang Sawallisch leads an authoritative, beautifully balanced studio recording, bringig out the rich colors and details in the score. The cast, led by René Kollo (slightly past his prime) and Cheryl Studer (entering hers) is excellent and idiomatic.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Sir Georg Solti (Decca, 1992)
This all-star complete recording was done in conjunction with Salzburg performances of a Götz Friedrich performance of the opera (that is on DVD and has an even better cast.) Decca made this expensive set as a rival to Sawallisch and a personal favor to conductor and Decca label superstar Sir Georg Solti. This was Solti's favorite opera, and his love for Strauss' music is heard in every bar of this performance. The cast is stellar, with Placido Domingo (?!), Julia Varaday, Hildegard Behrens and José van Dam as the leads. As the Nurse, the brilliant Reinhild Runkel captures every nuance of the most difficult role in the opera.

OK. You made it this far. Here's your reward: Birgit Nilsson, filmed for Swedish television singing the role of the Dyer's Wife. This is the Act II finale where she confronts her husband and all hell breaks loose.


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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.