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James King as Der Kaiser
24 Aug 2008

STRAUSS: Die Frau ohne Schatten — Covent Garden 1976

Die Frau ohne Schatten: Oper in three acts

Richard Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten

Emperor (James King)
Empress (Heather Harper)
Nurse (Ruth Hesse)
Spirit Messenger (Forbes Robinson)
Voice of the falcons (Eiddwen Harrhy)
Barak’s wife (Helga Dernesch)
Barak (Walter Berry)
One-eyed (William Elvin)
Hunchback (Paul Crook)
One-armed (Raimond Herincx)
Apparition of a youth (Robert Tear)

Royal Opera House, Georg Solti (cond.)
Performance: 5 April 1976, Covent Garden, London


Music composed by Richard Strauss. Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

First Performance: 10 October 1919, Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna.

Principal Characters:
Der Kaiser [Emperor] Tenor
Die Kaiserin [Empress] Soprano
Die Amme [Nurse] Mezzo-Soprano
Geisterbote [Spirit Messenger] Baritone
Die Erscheinung eines Jünglings [Apparition of Youth] Tenor
Die Stimme des Falken [Voice of the Falcons] Soprano
Barak der Färber [a dyer] Bass-Baritone
SeinWeib [his wife] Soprano
Der Einäugige [his brother, The One-Eyed] Bass
Der Einarmige [his brother, The One-Armed] Bass
Der Bucklige [his brother, The Hunchback] Tenor

Setting: The Emperor’s palace, Barak’s hut, fantastic caves and landscapes


Act I

The Emperor’s gardens

The Nurse is visited by a Spirit Messenger sent by the Spirit King Keikobad to check whether the Empress has a shadow. The Empress is the daughter of Keikobad, who had given her a magic talisman enabling her to transform herself into any form she chose. It was while in the form of a white gazelle that she was hunted by the Emperor and struck down by his falcon. She regained her human form and they were married, but the talisman carried a curse, which she has forgotten, threatening that her husband will be turned to stone and she will return to her father if she fails to win a shadow, that is, become pregnant.

A year has passed and she has not conceived, as she and the Emperor are so wrapped in one another that they have not sought to produce children. The Messenger grants a delay of three days, but the Emperor tells the Nurse that he will be probably be absent for three days, hunting for his falcon, which had flown off when he wounded it in his anger at its attack on the gazelle/Empress.

The Empress laments her husband’s absence and her inability, since she has lost the talisman, to transform herself again. The lost falcon returns and weeps because, as it tells the Empress, if she casts no shadow, the Emperor must turn to stone. She now remembers that these were the words, carved on the talisman, and asks the nurse how she can obtain a shadow. With apparent reluctance, the Nurse answers that it is possible to buy shadows from mortal beings. Though she paints a grim picture of the world of men, she is unable to resist the Empress’ plea to take her there to find a shadow.

The Dyer’s house

The three deformed brothers of the Dyer are fighting, but when the Dyer’s Wife throws water over them, they turn on her. In answer to her complaints and threat to leave the house, Barak says that it is his responsibility to feed and care for his brothers. She is discontented and blames him for not having made her pregnant. He answers her vituperations calmly and benignly, but does not succeed in soothing her.

The Empress and the Nurse appear, disguised as serving maids, the latter pretending to be amazed at the beauty of the Dyer’s Wife, who is at first angry at this flattery, but becomes intrigued when the Nurse speaks of a bargain by which she can obtain her heart’s desires: if she will renounce her shadow, she will have slaves, fine clothes and many young lovers. The Nurse transforms the poor hut into a rich pavilion, summons slaves to adorn the wife and shows her her reflection in a mirror. She tells the wife that by renouncing the idea of child-bearing, of which she paints a gruesome picture, simply by selling her shadow, the wife will achieve a life of love and luxury. When Barak is heard returning for his supper, his wife says she will refuse to sleep with him, and the Nurse splits the conjugal bed into two parts and summons fish to appear in the pan, from which, strangely, the voices of unborn children beg their mother to let them in.

The wife tells the dyer that he must sleep alone, while her "cousins," who have come to serve her, will sleep at her feet. Although distressed, he takes it philosophically. Nightwatchmen bless the procreative love of husband and wife.

Act II

The Dyer’s House

As soon as the Dyer leaves for the market the next morning the Nurse offers to send a messenger for the Wife’s secret lover. Disconcerted because there is no such person, the wife confesses that she had once looked with interest at a young man she passed in the street. Using her magic arts, the Nurse summons the shape of a young man. The Empress, who had previously been eager to obtain the shadow, is now repelled by the means used to achieve it and distressed by the apparent corruptibility of mankind.

The wife is embarrassed at this granting of wishes she scarcely knew she had. The young man disappears when Barak returns, laden with food and followed by a troop of beggar children, whom he joyfully feeds, along with his brothers. Again he turns away with a mild answer the discontented reproaches of his wife.

The Emperor’s falcon house in a wood

The Emperor has found his lost falcon and followed it to the falcon house. He has received a message from the Empress that she will be spending the three days of his absence there, alone except for the Nurse. But he senses the aura of humanity surrounding his wife. Believing that she has lied to him, he thinks of killing her, but is unable to bring himself to do so and leaves sadly.

The Dyer’s house

Barak is at work and his wife and the Nurse impatiently await his departure. He asks for a drink and the Nurse gives a cup to the Empress who hands it to him. He falls asleep, but his wife is angry when she realises that he has been drugged, and tries to rouse him. She accuses the Nurse of spying out her deepest secrets and putting ideas into her head. Although apparently not averse to the idea of the young lover, she wants nothing to do with the Nurse’s machinations.

Nonetheless the Nurse summons up the young man and the wife seems inclined to listen to his wooing, but suddenly draws back and, assisted by the Empress, shakes Barak awake, blaming him for sleeping and leaving her at the mercy of thieves.

The Emperor’s bedroom in the falcon house

The Empress sleeps restlessly, haunted by the memory of Barak’s eyes, aware that she has sinned against him. She dreams that she sees the Emperor turning to stone, only his eyes crying for help, and blames herself.

The Dyer’s house

Although it is mid-day, darkness is falling. The Nurse realises that powers greater than hers are at work. The Dyer’s Wife finds the house unbearable, and Barak feels weighed down. The Empress, moved by his great humanity, decides to remain among mankind.

The wife tries again to provoke her husband, hinting at the adventures she has been experiencing and finally announcing that she will not have children, having renounced her shadow as a sign of this. As it is seen that she really has lost her shadow, Barak raises a sword to her and she falls at his feet, swearing that she has not sinned against him, only thought about it, but begging him to kill her. The Empress refuses to take the shadow, which has blood on it. A river rises, Barak and his wife are swallowed up by the earth and the Nurse leads the Empress to a boat.


An underground vault, divided by a wall

Barak and his wife are on different sides of the wall, unable to communicate, each regretting their estrangement.

A rocky terrace

The Empress and the Nurse are carried by a boat to the entrance to a temple, where the Spirit Messenger awaits them. The Nurse tries to resist, but the Empress knows that she is called to judgment by her father. The door leads to the Water of Life. The Nurse warns her against it, but she believes she has to sprinkle the Emperor with it, to save him from turning to stone. Declaring that she now belongs with mankind, she rejects the Nurse and goes through the gate. The Nurse is unable to follow her and vindictively misleads Barak and his wife as they search for one another. She tries to save the Empress from her fate, but is banished to earth and curses Barak and his wife.

The Empress awaits her father’s judgment, resisting the temptation to drink the Water of Life for the same reason as she rejected the shadow, because it has blood in it. She sees her husband turned to stone, but still has the strength to refuse to accept the shadow at the expense of the happiness of others. The spell is broken and the Emperor returns to life and the Empress throws a shadow. The voices of unborn children are heard calling to them.

A beautiful landscape

Barak and his wife can see one another, but they are on the opposite sides of a ravine. Her shadow turns into a golden bridge. Both couples rejoice and look forward to their children.

[Synopsis Source: Opera~Opera]

Click here for the complete libretto.

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