Die Frau Ohne Schatten

Richard Strauss, libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
Mariinsky Theatre
Mariinsky Theatre, Saint Petersburg
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Die Frau Ohne Schatten Credit: N Razina

Richard Strauss wrote Die Frau Ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow) during World War I but it did not première until 1919. Many people think it is his masterpiece but it is not as popular as Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier and not performed that often.

I have not seen it in 50 years. It’s very long and difficult to cast and stage. The story is a magic fairy tale about marriage and the need for children. With so many young men dead in the war, the opera would have had a special resonance for audiences then.

Jonathan Kent’s production, designed by Paul Brown with projections by Nina Dunn and conducted by Valery Gergiev, was seen at Mariinsky Theatre in 2011.

There are two worlds. The Spirit World is rich in colour and feels very aristocratic and Japanese. The Human World is dead common, drab, squalid poverty, an ugly grey mess of washing machines and kitchenware.

A white gazelle is transformed into a beautiful princess and becomes an Empress (Mlada Khudoley). The only thing she lacks is a shadow. She is childless and she must get a shadow or her dreary husband (August Amanov) will be turned to stone. The shadow is a symbol of fertility.

The Empress’s Nurse (Olga Savova) finds her a human (Olga Sergeyeva) who doesn’t want children and who might be bribed into selling her shadow. The woman’s husband (Edam Umerov) is a decent bloke and she treats him badly for no reason.

There are strong performances from Sergeyeva and Umerov. The Empress is sidelined for much of the time by the Nurse and Khudoley doesn’t come into her own until the final scenes. Savova is never as evil as you are led to expect. Forget the story. Enjoy the music. I particularly enjoyed the transitional orchestral passages.

Die Frau Ohne Schatten can be viewed on Euro Arts Channel.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch