Die Frau ohne Schatten by Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss: An Analysis of Text, Music, and Their Relationship
Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow)
Richard Strauss: The Staging of His Operas and Ballets
Gide’s “Victor Hugo, hélas” expresses an attitude toward the French poet similar to that of many musicians about Richard Strauss. Yet the omnipresence of his operas on European and American stages is a phenomenon of the last decade as conspicuous as the failure to enter the repertory of any music by the far more influential and revered Arnold Schoenberg. Almost all of Strauss’s operas have been successfully revived, while Die Frau ohne Schatten has taken its place with Salome, Elektra, and Der Rosenkavalier, if not a higher one, in current critical opinion. The New Grove quotes Strauss’s estimate of it as “Hofmannsthal’s finest achievement,” adding that “some think that it is also Strauss’s,” and the recent Mondadori volume, L’Opera: repertorio della lirica dal 1597, generally balanced in its criticism, ranks the opera with Tristan and Don Giovanni. Moreover, these views are neither cultist nor elitist, as the sold-out tour of Die Frau in Britain last winter showed.
Now, after three years in deep freeze, Die Frau will be performed by the Met this fall as a vehicle for Birgit Nilsson, a peculiar reason, since her role, the Dyer’s Wife, is not the “lead” and does not make unique vocal demands. The Met’s compliance with the prima donna’s choice confirms once again the dominating influence of star performers over any consideration of the works themselves. It also indicates that the opera owes some of its astonishing popularity to the spectacular singing required of the three female characters—more to that, to be sure, than to the labyrinthine libretto, the dramatis personae of symbols rather than human beings, and the disastrous final scene, for if Die Frau occasionally rises above the three earlier Strauss operas, it also sinks far below them at the end, even below Salome’s dance.
Well known as Die Frau has become, a critical discussion is not yet possible without some kind of summary of the story, even one, such as the following, that omits several episodes and even characters. Thus the reader must know that the action takes place in the geographically unrecognizable South Eastern Islands, and that these are nominally ruled by a human Emperor but remotely controlled by Keikobad, the invisible commanding divinity of the Spirit World. A year before the story begins, the Emperor, hunting, was about to spear a gazelle when it turned into a beautiful woman (Keikobad’s daughter) who then became Empress and was installed in isolation in the Blue Palace. During her transformation, she lost the talisman that gave her the power of metamorphosis, and acquired a treacherous guardian Nurse from the Spirit World.
When the curtain opens, the Nurse is hiding in the dark on the palace roof, awaiting the twelfth monthly visit (a symbol of the menstrual cycle?) of Keikobad’s Messenger. “Does the Empress cast a shadow?” (Is she pregnant?), he asks, and when the Nurse answers in the negative, he warns her that if after three …