at The Royal Opera House
2nd April, 2014
‘Ye wedded folk, lying in each other’s arms, you are the bridge against the great abyss, on which the dead return again to life! Blessed be the fruit of your love!’
Fairy tale conventions feature conflicts between good and evil, with magic and luck usually determining happy endings. Universal human emotions such as love, hate, courage, kindness, and cruelty are the main ingredients. William Strauss’s ‘Die Frau Ohne Schatten’ has all these though there is some over indulgence from the librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s plot that defies summary – it is absolutely stuffed with symbol and parable. Therefore, it does not have customary fairy tale simplicity; the complexity of the opera leaves you wondering just how much has been absorbed. Perhaps, for the greatest part, the opera is clearly an allegorical fairy tale reflecting on a loveless marriage. Here, the idea that a woman can only be fulfilled by having children would cause Germaine Greer and Caitlin Moran to scream in protest. But hey, this is early twentieth century with an all pervading sense of patriarchy.
The richness and complexity of Hofmannsthal’s writing obviously inspired Strauss to compose one of his densest and daunting scores. So it is not surprising that his magnum opus is rarely staged.
The narrative concerns two couples: the Emperor (Johan Botha) and Empress (Emily Magee)—he, a mortal human, she, the daughter of the spirit god Keikobad—and Barak, the Dyer (the opera’s only character who has a name), a poor but decent man, and his dissatisfied young wife who is vulnerable to being unfaithful. Between them stands the Empress’s Nurse, a diabolical woman of the spirit world who hates anything human. After a year of marriage, the Empress is still without a shadow—Hofmannsthal’s symbol for motherhood. If she doesn’t conceive, her human husband will be turned to stone and she will have to return to her father. Like all good fairy tales, a deadline of three days is imposed for the Empress to succeed. In order to aid her mistress, the Nurse plots to steal a shadow from the Dyer’s Wife (Elena Pankratova).
The deal is almost done when the Empress realises that if she takes the shadow, Barak’s wife will never be able to bear children. Thus, the Empress would gain fulfilment at the cost of another person’s future happiness. Here the fairy tale moralising kicks in: as she chooses not to gain from depriving Barak’s wife, she is redeemed and gains her own shadow. Her contact with Barak humanises her, therefore she is able to be fully human. Both Barak and his wife as well as the Empress and her husband are reconciled. Unlike many operas, it is a happy ending, or lesson.
En route to redemption, the Empress faces trials and overcomes difficulties in order to get a better life. This resembles a Brothers Grimm moral tale and is rich with Jungian symbolism. All focus is on the fantasies, fears and neuroses of the Empress whose demon is a white gazelle. There is a sinister figure with a Stag’s head representing the Empress’s Spirit Father, part hobbling on stage and a grey Falcon,(Anush Hovhannisyan),symbol of the Emperor, whose appearances are signalled by haunting cries from a plaintive flute which I loved. There is so much repression and reverse logic at this point that the narrative eluded me at times.
Some of my confusion centres on the spirit figures. It is hard to know how Keikobad fits into the scheme or who the stag was meant to represent, the Emperor or Keikobad. It took a while to factor initially the time frames, especially when the gazelle first appears, symbolising the Empress’ life before she was married and her internal thoughts together with the falcon symbolising her capture. Within the fracturing of reality, the gothic filtering in and out on stage of dark winged creatures wearing top hats add a constant sense of vulnerability and uncertainty.
The opera is unusual with five strong principal roles, much needed against the volume of a larger than usual orchestra. The most impressive is Michaela Schuster who steals the night as a magnificently demonic Nurse who appears like a harpie. It is not always clear whether she is a malicious spirit or there for goodness since she helps her mistress in search for her shadow. Emily Magee is superb as the Empress but occasionally her heavy solid voice seems more apt for the earthbound Dyer’s wife. Nevertheless, her omnipresence is tangible and important to the plot even when she has little singing. I was moved to learn that she lost a child just before she first sang this role, describing it as a very fresh pain yet facing the great questions of mortality and motherhood during rehearsals every day was a very beneficial therapy. This knowledge seems all the more painful against the haunting voices of the unborn children. When the children do appear, they have gazelle heads, small versions of the Empress in her unconscious dream world.
Johan Reuter’s Barak at first sounded a little plain then his performance developed into something genuinely moving as he reunites with his wife. Less convincing is the Emperor’s reunion with the heroine which exposed the lack of chemistry between the singers.
The performances are aided by Christian Schmidt’s impressive staging, mainly defined by huge oppressive, veneered plywood panelling and tall windows. The stage also includes a travelator which doubles as a stream with a boat gliding along. More than once, I found myself thinking that there was an excessive use of beds that would render anyone liable for entry into a psychiatric home, though I do understand that the Empress is confused by the boundaries of dream and reality. Time and time again, we see a woman tossing uneasily on a hospital bed. At the end, the Empress is seen in bed again, as if nothing has happened and the whole rites of passage has been no more than a bad dream.
From the start, shadows are everywhere with simple tricks of light. Andi A Müller’s video projections provide a magical contrast with the oppressive wooden panelling. Some do not always appeal, such as the sperm-like fish but later the fire and water add to the burgeoning nightmare.
Some criticise the enormity of Claus Guth’s dream-interpretation but with two generously time intervals (long enough to continue our pre-booked dinner), the four hour production is to be savoured and loved.