“A woman has no shadow and so her husband must be turned into stone.” This connection between two events – so strange that it could only have come from the realm of dreams – formed the basis for one of the most unusual and bewitching operas of the 20th century.
The first to have this dream was not the composer but rather his librettist. In 1911 Hugo von Hofmannsthal, an Austrian playwright who sang the praises of love and death in his symbolist poems and dramas, proposed the unusual subject to his great friend Richard Strauss. The Empress – a being from the spirit world – has to become the same as all living men and acquire a shadow (a symbol for humankind and for womanhood) or her husband will be turned to stone. The simple subject canvas opens up a rich world of ideas, and in the language of symbols it tells of the birth of a personality through the struggle for its soul with dark forces. Not by chance were von Hofmannsthal and Strauss contemporaries of Nietzsche and Freud, who opened the door to Europeans to the world of the subconscious. However, von Hofmannsthal’s inspiration came not from Freud but rather from ancient Eastern tales and the romantic novellas of Chamisso, Novalis and Lenau. And also from Mozart! Having written the libretto for Strauss for the opera Der Rosenkavalier, based loosely on Mozart and Da Ponte’s Le nozze di Figaro, von Hofmannsthal conceived a new opera “the plot of which also correlates with Die Zauberflöte, just as the plot of Der Rosenkavalier does with Le nozze di Figaro”. The idea of contrasting two worlds – the human world and the spirit world – flowed from Mozart’s masterpiece into Die Frau ohne Schatten, as did the idea of overcoming difficulties that help the characters gain a new understanding of life. Arguably, this is where the similarities end. When starting work on the libretto, von Hofmannsthal wrote that it was impossible to recreate the “enchanting naivety of many scenes in Die Zauberflöte” and subsequently went increasingly farther from the initial idea in favour of the gloomy psychology of a 20th century drama.
Richard Strauss thought the libretto to be excellent and he used it as a basis to write the most unusual of his operas. Neither before – in the shockingly beautiful Salome and Elektra and the epicurean Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos – nor after, when his pen was increasingly producing comic operas, did Strauss turn to such a complex and symbolist subject. Neither before nor after did he immerse himself so fully in researching the finest motions of the human soul, the struggle of its gnawing, opposing desires.
The music of the opera, a worthy competitor to the composer’s numerous other operatic masterpieces, drew and continues to draw the most varied responses. Some critics have found “hitherto unknown heights of inspiration” in it, while others have seen “pretentiousness and pomposity”. The reasons for these disagreements lie in the complicated nature of the music, where one hears the voice of the mature maestro, who has lost his taste for shocking and stylistic experimentation. The music of Die Frau ohne Schatten sounds refreshingly deep and lofty. It contains deeply imbued lyrical episodes, where human suffering is conveyed with noble courage and highly effective and colourful “infernal” scenes. They are given a particular flavour by the immense orchestra with the large percussion section, the Chinese gong, the xylophone, the celesta, the organ and the glass harmonica. The orchestra comprises over one hundred musicians and facilitates the production of unusual sound effects. The glass harmonica, which can be heard in the finale of the opera, creates a particular, mystical flavour in the final scene with its light, otherworldly sound, where the protagonists attain catharsis and become freed from passions.
The composer himself, who worked on Die Frau ohne Schatten for three years (1914–1917) coinciding with the tragic events of World War I, called it “a child of sorrow”. This grief arose not just because of the worries of the war years but also because of difficulties in mastering the material. However, on completing the opera he named it “the most important opera of my life” and said that “people who understand art will consider Die Frau ohne Schatten to be one of my most significant works.”
The world premiere of the opera took place on 10 October 1919 in Vienna, when post-war domestic difficulties were at their greatest and it met with a cool response from the public. Later, however, Die Frau ohne Schatten went on to be staged on numerous occasions at the world’s opera houses and came to be seen as a kind of indicator of theatres’ performing strengths and artistic greatness. This is one of the most complex scores in the history of music: Strauss used a vast orchestra with over one hundred musicians and made incredibly high demands of the soloists. There are few theatres that can boast of having this opera in their repertoires – in Russia only the Mariinsky Theatre has staged its own production of Die Frauohne Schatten.