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,1 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 more days the Empress is still “ohne Schatten,” she must return to her father in the Spirit World, and the Emperor will be turned to stone. Since the Nurse dislikes the world of humans, and is pleased with the prospect of the Emperor’s petrifaction, she resolves not to tell this to the Empress. The Emperor enters and informs the Nurse that he will be away for three days to look for his Red Falcon, which has disappeared. The Nurse then goes to the chamber of the sleeping Empress, where the Falcon flies in and reveals the secret of the Emperor’s impending fate. Determined to save him, the Empress obliges the Nurse to help her find a shadow. As the new day breaks, they set out on this quest.

This opening scene moves rapidly and could scarcely be more compact. The characterizations are also quickly drawn: the mendacious Nurse, the doting but shallow Emperor—his idea of a gift for his wife is a carcass from his hunt—the mysterious Empress herself, whom Strauss portrays with exotic, bird-like figurations. The music that evokes the contrast between daylight and the darkness of the Empress’s world is some of the most effective, atmospherically, that Strauss ever wrote; nor are the loose ends in the libretto particularly disturbing: the Nurse’s unexplained remark that the Empress’s partisanship toward humankind is inherited from her mother, and the improbability that, a year after being wounded by the Emperor, the Falcon still weeps and its wing still bleeds.

The next scene takes place in the hut of Barak, the Dyer, to which the Empress and Nurse come disguised as servants. The Dyer’s Wife, the woman with a shadow, though still childless,2 desires only material things, including a young lover. The Nurse, conjuring a vision of a life of luxury, is able to persuade the Wife to exchange her shadow for it, but as a condition of the pact the Wife must stay apart from her husband for three days. The Nurse and Empress leave, and the moaning voices of the Dyer’s unborn children cry out from a fire, “Mutter, Mutter, lass uns nach Hause.” The Wife is frightened, but recovers and hides from her spouse.


This synopsis does not mention the Dyer’s three malformed brothers, but, arguably, they are superfluous characters, along with the anthropomorphic Falcon, whose heavily plaintive and unvarying music, moreover, soon becomes monotonous. Nor does the synopsis indicate the extent to which Act I is dominated by the Nurse, who has some 490 lines in the opera (in Eric Crozier’s translation for singing, which does not advise the reader about cuts and which misattributes some of the lines of the three brothers), as compared to 382 for the Dyer’s Wife and only 273 for the Empress: in the second scene of Act I the Empress is a near-silent observer.

The act as a whole is on a high musical level, with some delicate orchestral effects, above all in the evocation of the shadow partly by means of a basset horn, and in the use of unaccompanied flutes and harp at the Wife’s line “We have no mirror,” and of larger shimmering combinations after the Nurse’s “Let me arrange your diadem.” The identification of Barak and “neoclassic” melodic and harmonic procedures is both established and overdone, as in the orchestral tone poem that “expresses” his goodness, but contributes nothing dramatically and makes the character more ethereal than Hofmannsthal can have intended. Finally, the Watchmen’s sixteenth-century-style chorale is incongruous in a South Eastern Islands setting—except that, from the beginning, the musical landscape is clearly identified as Mitteleuropa (the dramatic one as Transylvania). As for the women’s voices laughing in dotted rhythms (“Ha, haha”), this, fortunately, is part of the background.

In Act II, scene 1, the Empress and Nurse return and the latter conjures an apparition of the promised lover for the Dyer’s discontented Wife, making him vanish as Barak enters, followed by Beggar Children whom he feeds. Barak’s goodness so moves the Empress that she decides to become human. In scene 2, in a forest by the Falcon house, the Emperor discovers that his wife has become involved with humans, and that, in consequence, his marriage must end. He asks the Falcon to lead him to a remote cave on a distant cliff.

In scene 3, the disguised Empress helps the Dyer, and in scene 4 she is disturbed by dreams of him and of the Emperor entering a tomb-like cavern, after which she realizes that the fates of both men are in her hands. In the final scene of the act, the Dyer’s Wife confesses to her husband that she has deceived him, as well as renounced her shadow and with it their unborn children. The light of a fire reveals that she is indeed without shadow, where-upon the Dyer is about to kill her—with a sword obligingly placed in his hand by the Nurse—but the Empress intervenes and refuses to take the shadow. Earthquakes and floods carry everything and everybody away.

The quality of the music in Act II is not consistent, but that of the Empress is sometimes spellbinding, especially at the end of the scene with Barak (“Ich, mein gebieter, deine Dienerin“), and the interlude that follows is one of the strongest passages in the opera. In the same scene, the Wife’s 6/8 music at “Denn es ist nicht von heute” could have come from Der Rosenkavalier, which could be said of other sections as well.

In the final act, the Dyer and his Wife, imprisoned in separate caverns, have grown wiser and wish to be reunited, but the Nurse misleads them in their search to find each other. Scene 2 takes place in Keikobad’s palace, where the Empress awaits her father’s judgment for having shown compassion to human beings. The thought of what has happened to the Emperor obsesses her, but the Nurse tells her about a spring of water that can restore him—at the price of her own life. (The Nurse is finally banished to the hated society of mankind.)

In the next scene, the Empress enters a temple in the interior of the mountain, where her husband has become a stone statue. Though still “ohne Schatten,” she pleads with the invisible Keikobad to let her live in the world of humans. In response, a fountain of gold water appears; she is told that she will acquire a shadow after drinking of it. Fearing that this would be the Wife’s, she refuses, and the fountain disappears. She then asks Keikobad to reveal himself, but a curtain parts exposing, instead, the statue of the Emperor. The fountain reappears and she is told that to drink of it will restore him to life. Hearing the voices of the Dyer and his Wife, she still refuses, and the fountain again ceases to flow. But a light now shows the Empress with a shadow, and the Emperor alive, and the opera ends with a quartet of the reunited couples, joined by a chorus of Unborn Children greeting their future parents.


The score of the first part of Act III is remarkably new, from the curiously Debussyan prelude to the change-of-scene music (beginning at 40) that might have come from Wozzeck. But if Hofmannsthal’s inspiration for this act was The Magic Flute, with its trials by ordeal and exploiting of socially contrasted couples, Strauss’s was Parsifal, as well as, at the Empress’s “Mein Vater,” Brünnhilde. The dénouement, unfortunately, is as devoid of musical ideas as it is deafeningly loud.

The weaknesses of the libretto of Die Frau are not in its edifying concepts, but in its ill-conceived story, poor dramatic structure, and unconvincing characters. Hofmannsthal relied too strongly on the conventional trappings of fairy tale models: the clichés of time (three days, a twelvemonth); place (a Tolkien never-never-land, with a suggestion of the Enchanted Island of The Tempest); the intervention of superior powers, prodigies of nature, magic, disguises and transformations; and the ultimate triumph of the Moral Principle. These, after all, are the marks of the genre, but so are disconnected adventures, and partly because of this, and the suspension of logic, the drama fails.

Furthermore, though the characters, like the tale, are archetypal—royalty and beggars, the simple and good human being (the Dyer) and the thoroughly evil spirit (the Nurse)—what they represent is not made sufficiently clear, and their behavior is inconsistent. Thus, when the Dyer threatens to kill his wife, his much touted goodness becomes questionable, homicidal intentions not usually being a sign of virtue. His Wife, moreover, is even less believable, not because she is so easily corrupted, but because she lacks dimension. As for the Emperor, the Nurse’s description of him as “lovesick, and a hunter, but otherwise nothing” says it all, except that his punishment seems disproportionately severe, since his entanglement with forces of which he was unaware was accidental. And the Nurse, with the opera’s largest role, is a stereotype, a witch in whom no development takes place.

Who is Keikobad, and what is the moral basis of his Spirit World? He is a god, of course, since he presides over a system of predestination and at the same time allows his daughter to perform the acts of free will that provide the dramatic action. But why is his music so portentous, and why does the motif of this unseen being dominate the opera as that of the unseen Agamemnon does Elektra? Even if the libretto fails to convey Hofmannsthal’s conclusions, he must have answered these questions for himself, and in reality he did believe in the pre-existence of those Unborn Children who so remind us of today’s clients of Right-to-Life groups.

That the Empress is the opera’s only compelling character is due in large measure to her mysterious origins as the daughter of Keikobad, and to the strange concept of her physical makeup, a transparent (i.e. crystal) body. Yet it is through her selflessness, as she becomes conscious of the suffering of others, that the opera achieves its moral power. And it is through her, too, that the shadow’s ultimate meaning, as distinguished from its first meaning of mere fertility, becomes clear: the willingness to lose one’s life for another is the way to save it.

In the first important monograph on Die Frau, Sherrill Pantle states the conviction that apart from “a belated recognition of artistic worth,” the reason for the current fascination with the opera is that it “stands before the audiences of the last quarter of the twentieth century as the incarnation of a lost innocence and the realization of a lost hope.” But do audiences really see the opera in that way, desirable as this may be? And is its appeal not primarily musical? The author’s estimate of Strauss’s art is extremely restricted: “The pathological and the extraordinary had definitely shown itself [sic] to be [his] particular metier,” Pantle writes, to which one can only answer that nostalgia is as much the composer’s forte as the macabre, and that his musical characterizations of “whole” and “healthy” people are no less successful. Who in modern opera can be compared to the Marschallin as a portrayal of a “mature” individual?

But Pantle’s book does not shed as much light on the music as it does on the drama, and such devices as his chart associating keys and moods in some of Strauss’s tone poems are not very useful: F major may correspond to Strauss’s “serene and carefree” feelings,3 but the same can be said of countless other composers—though in the first place, one doubts that opera audiences recognize tonalities in such music, or are aware, even in a much simpler kind, when an aria has been transposed. It must also be said that Pantle’s chapter on the nature of opera contains meaningless statements—“music expresses feelings by presenting them to us in their logical contours”—that further complicate the study of a work already overendowed with perplexities. Opera combines two arts in opposition, he says, owing to the antithesis between music as a suspension of clock-time and drama as a form “concerned with the Future or with the consequences of acts performed in the Now.” But surely music has dramatic structures of its own that are “concerned with” the future of relationships formed in the “now.”

What Pantle does provide is an invaluable guide to Hofmannsthal’s language, its syntactic features, meter, vocabulary, and the nuances in German on which the purely verbal symbolism of the opera depends. And, secondarily, Pantle uncovers the identities of many more of Hofmannsthal’s sources. Those already known were The Arabian Nights, The Magic Flute, Schiller’s adaptation of Gozzi’s Turandot (in which both the Dyer and Keikobad appear—the latter, also mentioned in Omar Khayyám, having been an actual Seljuk monarch), and Faust (Hofmannsthal himself having noted the similarities between the Nurse and Mephistopheles). To this list, Pantle adds Chamisso’s 1814 play about the selling of a shadow; Goethe’s “seducing Tyche,” who resembles Hofmannsthal’s Youth; and a number of Biblical references, most convincingly between some of the Empress’s lines and those of John of Patmos’ vision of the Last Judgment. But Pantle sees the Dyer as a Christ figure, through the parallel of illumination following acceptance of death.

Unfortunately, the book’s quotations are not translated, and though Nietzsche is available in English, this is not true of Hofmannsthal’s notebooks and of the Erzählung, the quasi-parallel narrative version of the libretto, written after it. (Only chapter four has been translated, in the Bollingen volume of selected prose introduced by Hermann Broch.) This novella contains psychological motivations necessarily absent in the dramatized form, as well as more background material and variants that offer different, sometimes helpful perspectives.

Rudolph Hartmann, who staged Die Frau for Strauss himself, does not regard the opera’s flaws as insurmountable, nor does he agree that bypass surgery is the remedy for the main problem in Act III, which is that no dramatic conflict remains to be resolved, the Empress already having refused the shadow of the Dyer’s Wife at the end of Act II. But then, Hartmann tends to disregard the opera’s symbolism and moral lessons in order to focus on its theatrical requirements. For example, he warns that the shadowless Empress must be positioned next to pillars and props whose shadows absorb hers, since to keep her in darkness simply to avoid her real-life shadow is to diminish her primary place in the opera. He also points out that the realism of every aspect of the Dyer’s world should be heightened to contrast it with fairyland.

Hartmann believes, too, that the opera’s orientalism ought to be emphasized, and he suggests that the singers in Act III imitate the stylized gestures of people in Persian and Indian miniatures. Certainly the most stunning sets for Die Frau illustrated in Hartmann’s book are very like enlarged miniatures. Emil Preetorius’s design for the palace scene looks like a copy of an actual print, while, in another tableau, the Falcon house might have been taken from a Chinese scroll. As for Alfred Roller’s maquettes for the premiere (Vienna, 1919), these are not only oriental, but also erotic, an essential quality in establishing the distinction between procreative and purely sexual love that is one of the opera’s principal subjects.

The Metropolitan Opera’s 1966 production of Die Frau ohne Schatten, revived in 1978, was designed to show off the mechanical resources of the company’s new stage. These, at any rate, were the stars of the performance, the scenery rising into the firmament, sinking into the depths, turning around and inside out; the characters appearing and disappearing in bursts of smoke and light; the push-button geysers and flames. But the glitter and dazzle only pointed up the threadbare quality of the acting, of the principals lurching toward each other, arms outstretched, halting, backing up, starting again, then temporizing until the music permitted them to embrace or collapse. Another consequence of the theatrical fireworks was that the moral theme was lost. This time around the audiences should do some homework, of the kind indicated in Pantle’s book. They might then be able to follow Hofmannsthal’s themes in Strauss’s music.

This Issue

September 24, 1981