Richard Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919)

Opera in three acts. 3 hours 18 minutes.

WARNING: People with a natalist/heterosexualist agenda/worldview please skip this review as you will find it highly offensive.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-p6jiSLMavk

ACT 1: (68 minutes)

Scene 1: Before the bedchamber of the Emperor and Empress.

6, 11, 13, 19: There is no prelude, rather three bangs (repeated) and the curtain is up on the nurse freaking out as it is dawn and the last of twelve messengers from the Empress’ father Keikobad telling her that if the Empress doesn’t get up the duff pronto her hubby will be transformed into a pillar of salt or stone or something. The nurse relays the last year’s events: the Empress was a shape-shifter who transformed herself into one hot gazelle and got married. The Emperor has gotten a LOT of action out of her, in fact, so much sex has occurred that it is impossible to believe that Keikobad hasn’t magic-ed his daughter to be barren just so he can turn the Emperor into stone, who shows up outside the bedroom door just as he is about to go off on a hunt to find his lost red eagle that he dumped when it tried to attack the Emperess in gazelle form *. He goes into a Ring Cycle-style precis about how he met the Empress as a sexy gazelle who got turned into a hot shiksa when his arrow pierced her (seriously?). Stupidly he will be going out for three days, meaning that unless he got the old wifey preggers over night he is screwed royally. He goes off rather well *. The Nurse knows all is lost, for the Emperor at least because she hates living with mortals and wants back into fairy land. The horny Empress shows up wondering where to get a good marital rogering, sweet nothings.  She spots one of her husband’s falcons to bird chirping sounds from the flutes *. A little bird flies by and poops on her for being child-free. She then asks the nurse for help *. Then, just for kicks, the nurse goes into her androphobic spiel against the ways of humanity, animals, the sun. The empress demands a shadow must be acquired.

Scene 2: Home of Barak the Dyer and his mishpucha.

24, 30, 50, 58: The intermezzo * is furious orchestral madness as we come upon: The brothers of the dyer are horsing around until the Wife dumps water on them and orders them out. Barak engages in some passive-aggressive behaviour with his wife, namely discussing how his brothers were once children, and then making an all out soupy request from his wife for offspring *. He promises to be patient and wait for “the blessings”. This is followed by an almost meaningless but tuneful orchestral interlude before the Nurse and the Empress arrive. The former comes on to the Wife like a demented fairy godmother. She eventually tries to buy the Wife’s shadow in exchange for promises of wealth and royal title (whatever). The Weird Sisters show up in a low temp redirection of the Flower-Maidens from Parsifal *. The nurse goes into some rather graphic descriptions of what happens to women when they’re bodies become “highways”  and their breasts “sag and wither”. She promises, in exchange for her shadow, the Wife will receive three days of service from the Nurse and the Empress and then a lifetime of pleasure as a Queen afterwards. Barak returns. The Nurse makes dinner happen *. Followed by an incredibly weird, creepy pasta chorus of the unborn children (I can’t make stuff like this up!). Strauss has had to have been shrooms or something when he wrote it. Barak greets the news that he and his wife now have separate beds and that her two cousins (the Nurse and Empress of course) are coming to live with them as servants for three days, to ornery unborn chorus music although it gets a little, just a little more ardent. He then watches state propaganda encouraging marital procreation and some hinting that the unborn are actually the souls of the dead trying to be reborn. The final symphony would be nice if not for its preoccupation with birthing.

ACT 2: (66 minutes)

Scene 1: Same as previous scene.

4: The Nurse thinks everything is just peachy as Barak is sent off to work at whatever. She tries to get the Wife into some sort of romantic mood for another man. At last she goes into a fragmentary arioso * in which she praises sex with the Borg(?) or rather broom and the Empress chides her for it because she has softened somehow because Barak has been nice to her. Apparently she also has the gift of remarkable hearing as she alerts the Nurse that Barak is coming home so the Borg envoy needs to go. He returns with a boatload of children just to torment her and by now I am really reconsidering if the right side won during World War 2. He offers his wife candies and she crashes the party.

Scene 2: The Emperor’s hunting lodge.

14: Nasty bird sounds (two flutes) again followed by a bit of double bass solo work * turning into sad string music.

18: The Emperor’s monologue *, probably only a good piece for the orchestral flourishes (repeated) than for any vocal beauty. It goes on for eight minutes as he starts to believe that the Empress has betrayed him, resolves to kill her, and decides against that course of action. Strauss milks these two avian leitmotifs almost to death though.

Scene 3: Same as Scene 1.

42: The Nurse drugs Barak to sleep (seriously that routine?, how original!) and tempts the Wife with that broom lover again. She goes into a brief arioso again about sex, also again. The Wife this time turns off the broom and wakes her husband up (a sleeping potion that people can be easily roused from?). Barak becomes suspicious and the Wife has a panic attack. Eventually she leaves him to go to the city. There is an orchestral explosion *. Barak and the Empress (who hasn’t been doing very much since act 1 scene 1 ) have a brief exchange as the scene changes.

Scene 4: Same as Scene 2.

46, 49: The Empress engages in some lovely coloratura floating *. She confesses her sin against Barak, that she has tried to ruin his happiness just to save her own skin and that of her husband. She determines to sacrifice all in atonement. We get some brooding from the male chorus as she dreams ** (or is it premonition?) that the Emperor has entered her father’s kingdom and will be turned into stone. She recognizes that now she can only save one man or the other. This scene can be visually stunning.

Scene 5: Same as Scenes 1&3.

57, 59: A lyric ensemble * for the three women Barak, and his brothers. The Nurse and the Empress suspect that a power stronger than their magic is at work, and it is. The Wife admits to selling her shadow * to the Empress, who declares she no longer wants it. The libretto here is frankly weird with all of the characters freaking out force 9 (Barak threatens actively to kill her) and the Wife grabbing a Care Bear for dear life and admits the trade off hasn’t actually happened yet but that he should kill her anyways. He is about to when suddenly the earth swallows them up alive and the Nurse declares that higher powers are at work and the act ends on three banging chords. It feels a little like the end of the second act of Parsifal. 

ACT 3 (62 minutes)

Scene 1: Grotto in the realm of Kikkoman (!) I joke it’s Keikobad.

4: The Wife and Barak have been separated here without knowing the other is nearby. The Wife is tormented by the voices of her unborn children who want to use her womb as their “highway” as the Nurse would put it. She has an aria of sorts here that is worth mentioning *. Barak goes into some sappy stuff about “having and holding” and the like. The Wife, who up to this point has been a good feminist, totally crashes and burns here and turns into a submissive husband humping hausfrau and Strauss celebrates this with a joyous interlude.

Scene 2: Before the Temple of Keikobad (because apparently he is some sort of divine being, or at least has massive pretensions of grandeur?).

19: Crash and Burn. The Nurse and Empress come on and are told to leave by Keikobad’s messenger. Foreboding music, “Abandon all Hope All Ye that Enter Here” would be appropriate. Interestingly, the Empress mentions Solomon here *. This leads to a grand climax for her. The Nurse makes her final plea to avoid contact with Keikobad, followed by The Empress’s very Jewish declaration that “We are Judged by our Deeds”. She departs from the Nurse forever because she knows not the sacrifices made by humankind, and possibly a doctrine of reincarnation as well? She depart for her father. The Nurse then gets her come-upence and is banished to earth forever.

Scene 3: The Interior of the Temple of Keikodad.

31: The Empress, alone, attempts to address her father while all about her the other characters scream in horror. A sweet interlude starts up as the Empress prostrates herself in order to bring her father to her **. She has learned self-sacrifice, but she has no shadow.

36: A spring of water develops and she is told to drink of it ** but she will not because it is tainted with human blood.

42: She demands to be tried, and it is revealed that the Emperor is already encased in rock. She declares that he is being punished for what she alone is guilty of **. At the same time that she is tempted to drink and to accept the Dyer’s Wife’s shadow as her own but she ultimately refuses and this is in fact the correct answer. This entire scene, although very powerful, has more of the intensity of a cinematic scene than an operatic tableau.

45: The Prince steps out from the rock and starts annoying talking about children *. Nauseating children’s choirs declare how much they want to be babies. Th Emperor seems to be describing insemination and fertilization.

Scene 4: An idealistic spot.

56: The Wife arrives awaiting death, but Barak wants her for other more pleasurable purposes. The two men start off the final ensemble with the two women coming in. It climaxes well and we all know what is going to happen next with our major players now that men have won, women have gotten over all the fears they have about reproducing so that their men can inseminate them and the sickening chorus of the procreates goes on one last time before Strauss provides us with a sugary close.

COMMENTS:

Personally, I hate this opera. Other people may see it as a life-affirming humanist work but to me it is basically Wagner’s Die Feen mixed with Von Hofmannsthal’s hyper-natalist ideological agenda which at times comes off as annoy and at other times very, very disturbing (it implies that women need to get over their hang ups about motherhood and let their menfolk inseminate them.) Literally one of the choruses is just about asking married people to do the deed so the souls awaiting reincarnation can be conceived. The opera interesting not only seems to confirm the idea of reincarnation but also of the pre-existence of the human soul, something neither Christianity nor Judaism teaches and is mostly likely a reference to Platonism or even Islam. This might partially explain why the libretto has generally been deemed incomprehensible. It also means that this opera already has one fatal mark against it in my book by having an ideological agenda. Ah, German opera! Apart from the rather strikingly cinematic act 3 trial for the Empress, this is nothing more than a long vocal obstacle course with a generally bizarre plot and implausible concepts even for a psychedelic fairytale. What is more the music is not so much pallid as mostly uneventful and exudes a Wagnerian tendency towards ennui. The Emperor has shockingly little to do, only having about twenty-four minutes of singing in an over three hour long opera and when he does sing it isn’t all that interesting. Barak is obviously the primary male character and the Wife is, until act third, almost certainly the main female character because the Empress has little to do before her act 2 dream sequence. The banishment of the Nurse is too much of a relief given how important she is to most of the story even if she is nothing but annoying. The plot consists of a series of worn out cliches (enchanted brooms, kill the wabbit/untrue wife, sleeping potion, male sexual domination of females, female reproductive empowerment projected as evil, sycophantic fetuses/ghosts of the unborn or those seeking reincarnation (?), the earth swallowing up people, grottos where people are in extremely close proximity but have no idea they are so close alla Massenet’s Cendrillon,  rich girl and noxious middle aged bat doing housework for  impoverished couple) none of which help the opera. The only sort of cool thing is how the entire scenario is really about the Empress learning self-sacrifice, but this develops at a glacial pace and almost becomes anti-climactic as a concept which it really shouldn’t. Also isn’t a 164 piece orchestra just a wee bit excessive? I won’t bother with a letter grade.

I get so tired of Euro-Trash opera productions that waste so much money on tertiary mute characters and weird symbolic sets and costumes. No one gives a flying lala about philosophy or symbolism. No one goes to operas (except maybe Wagnerians) for any of this garbage. I would hope that if they are going to produce an opera they should spend money on elegant period sets and costumes for the principles, minimize the chorus or ballet if the budget is tight, and eliminate silent characters that are just totally worthless figments of the set designer’s imagination.

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7 thoughts on “Richard Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919)

  1. “No one goes to operas (except maybe Wagnerians) for philosophy and symbolism.”

    My dear fellow! Why else would anyone go to the opera? For the music? Puh-lease! For the “drama”? Don’t make me laugh. They are relics of a bourgeoisie long since dead and gone, thankfully, and no self respecting intellectual can take them seriously. They must be deconstructed, in witty, relevant productions. (Preferably with naked homeless people and streetwalkers to symbolise the exploitation of capitalism.) Anything else is kitsch.

    And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to Samstag aus Licht.

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    1. Your sarcasm always scares me because it comes off as reality so well! I was criticizing the Royal Opera’s production of Die Frau for its bird-headed characters, not recognizing how bird-brained it all was. Maybe it is kitsch to prefer Verdi’s Otello in period costume, but that is what I wish producers would budget for rather than symbolist Euro-Trash nonsense. I’m a bit of a purist regarding operas being set in their intended place and time. Even the Soviets used to avoid putting Marxist symbolism into their productions or at least if they did it was more classy. Now it’s all grimy, save it for Kurt Weill and Alban Berg where at least it is appropriate to the story. HAHAHAHAHA, are you really going to review all seven operas and 28 hours of Stockhausen’s Licht? You bring it up a lot. I’ll pray for you because I don’t think I could ever review something so long and big and modern.

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  2. Ah, FrOSch!

    Here’s my review from five years ago:
    Uncyclopedia describes it thus:

    “Based on a novella by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, it tells the story of the fairy empress unable to fulfil her husband sexually until he is encased in concrete and she receives a golden shower. The role of the nurse was famously created by Hattie Jacques, while the character of the dyer’s wife was based on Strauss’s own wife, apparently because every moment he spent in her presence made him want to die.”

    I know exactly how he felt. I have the same reaction to Strauss.

    I admire Salome, which has an excellent libretto (courtesy of Oscar Wilde) and a stunning final scene. Plus there’s the fun of telling fundamentalist Christians that I’ve been watching a teenage girl do a striptease and then have an orgasm over the severed head of John the Baptist. There are some good things in Rosenkavalier, Daphne and Ariadne auf Naxos (Offenbach would have done it better). But the rest of them… The plots are either banal bourgeois sitcoms, impenetrable farragoes of symbolism, mythology and Freud, or have no discernible story.

    I find his music hard to follow. The musical texture is very thick; there are a dozen things going on in the orchestra at once, while the voices are singing another, not very interesting, line of heightened recit. Occasionally the voices go up or DOWN, and louder or softer, but there’s nothing for the ear to latch onto. So it’s just a loud, lush tunelessness.

    This has same basic plot as Die Feen. An Emperor goes hunting, shoots a deer which turns out to be a supernatural being (the daughter of Keikobad); they marry. At the end of a year, she doesn’t cast a shadow, so he’s turned into stone. After undergoing ordeals in an underground kingdom, the Empress rescues him, and they live happily ever after.

    Die Feen is much more accessible. This is boring and pretentious, with an air of solemn portentousness, and a plot involving singing fish sizzling in a frying-pan, the spirits of unborn children, and rainbows, all submerged in heavy-handed symbolism and cryptic utterances. In fact, it’s the worst elements of Wagner. Then there’s the opera’s basic message: marriage is a glorious thing, and women should be looked after by their husbands, and have lots of children.

    REVIEW ENDS

    That was me watching the 1992 Salzburg Festival DVD conducted by Solti.

    I’ve mellowed somewhat; it’s still an impenetrable farrago (Magic Flute rewritten by a Wagnerian), but there are some beautiful things in the score – the watchmen’s chorus at the end of Act I (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YAjhuIYjh8) – and the suite is lovely: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSxXntAYMLw

    I also like Strauss a lot more than I did then!

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    1. You know I actually reviewed this with more Strauss under my belt. I like Arabella as well actually, but then again the only symbolism there is a glass of water. Ironically I’m not a fan of Der Rosenkavalier, not that I hate it, it just isn’t a favourite at all. And what the heck is up with that Giant Contralto Clam in Die Aegyptische Helene? Seriously what drug do you need to be on to dream up that? If I do that one, I’ll have to start with the Unencyclopedia quote! I think what I hate about Die Frau is the ideology, the music in itself isn’t terrible although it can get boring for long stretches and the nurse is annoyingly bad in the wicked sense. The Watchmen’s Chorus is fine as a piece of music, but if you pay any attention to the libretto and you aren’t a natalist it will wear at you. Hearing the souls of the unborn calling out for conception is frankly weird and as I already said in my main review, what is Von Hofmannsthal trying to do here, teach reincarnation, the pre-existence of souls? It is never made clear at all.

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      1. Strauss himself had problems fathoming some of H von H’s more abstruse musings. He was nonplussed by Helena (which you’ve just reviewed), thinking the opera should have ended in the first act – before the Arab sheikh stuff.

        Let’s see… Apart from the big ones, Die schweigsame Frau is delightful; a warm, human comedy, with some magical moments (the end of Act II; Morosus’ Wie schoen ist doch die Musik: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K35aHwSA9q0).

        Friedenstag is too austere to be popular, but I like the Fidelio-esque finale. Daphne is good, too, with a beautiful scene where the soprano turns into a tree. (Hey, it’s Greek mythology!) Guntram is cod-Wagnerian, but a fine prelude. I don’t know Feuersnot or Die Liebe der Danae well enough to comment.

        Arabella is my father’s favourite opera, period.

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      2. Friendenstag is in my collection, and I actually don’t mind it too much. The tenor parts (however few) are interesting, I especially love being bombarded by an relieving Italian-singing tenor after 10 minutes of listen to a bunch of baritones and basses mouthing off in German.

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