The ROH has revived its 1992 production of Richard Strauss’ fifth opera, Die Frau ohne Schatten. First performed in 1919 with a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal from his own story, it’s a complicated allegorical fantasy of a half spirit/half human who is pursued and married by an Emperor.
If she has not conceived a child by the end of the first year of marriage, the Emperor will be turned to stone and she must return to the spirit world. However, she cannot conceive because she has no shadow…
Her conniving nurse takes her to the human world where they visit the home of Barak the Dyer and his wife, and trick her into selling her shadow by promise of great riches. She agrees that this shall happen in three days’ time, during which she will ‘refuse her husband’, and the Empress and the nurse will act as her servants.
However at the last moment the Empress finds she cannot deprive the Dyer’s wife of her right to bear children and refuses to accept the shadow. The nurse continues to try to persuade her, but she remains adamant. Her husband is turned to stone but they are rewarded for her unselfishness by the lifting of the spell. She gains a shadow, the Emperor is restored to life, and Barak and his wife are reunited: both the Empress and the Dyer’s wife will be able to bear children.
The set design by David Hockney remains fresh (though the lighting in the second act of this revival was poor). The portrayal and lighting of Barak and his wife at the opening of Act 3 was particularly moving. Regrettably, the ‘waters of life’ remain laughable, and the ‘stone Emperor’ could have been more convincing.
Musically, however, the whole opera was superb. Christoph von Dohnányi obtained glorious playing from the pit and there was an excellent balance between the singers and the orchestra at all times. All the soloists were in excellent voice. Jane Henschel as the nurse, as in 1992, was outstanding both vocally and in her acting. Deborah Voigt (the Empress) and Gabrielle Schnaut (the Dyer’s wife), were both magnificent. The American baritone Alan Titus as Barak gave a most memorable performance. John Botha, the South African tenor, sang the role of the Emperor superbly, although he was rather static. Overall I feel very privileged to have seen such an excellent production of a rarely performed opera.