DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN
November 13, 2013
With the Met Opera abstaining from Wagner this season, the company’s German offerings
come by way of Richard Strauss (although a freshly translated Die Fledermaus and
a Levine-conducted Wozzeck come later). The first of these, Die Frau ohne Schatten
(The Woman Without a Shadow), Strauss’ 1919 opera, had its season premiere on
Tuesday night. It made for beautiful listening, although the production and the text
itself proved to be frustrating.
The opera follows an empress (the daughter of a spirit god, played by Anne
Schwanewilms), who lacks a shadow, which supposedly symbolizes her inability
to have children. She then enters into a pact with a dyer’s wife (soprano Christine
Goerke) to obtain the other woman’s shadow. As their fates entwine, Strauss and his
librettist sought to explore maternal psychology and associated societal pressures.
The libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal is a problematic thing – while the Dyer’s
wife’s disenchantment with marriage and the prospect of motherhood is often
empathic, intelligent writing, the Empress’ ‘spirit goddess’ plight is expressed
through fussy, psychoanalytic symbolism that cannot be enjoyed. But why is the
falcon spirit crying so? Et cetera.
The most striking element of the production (originally staged in 2001) is the
hall of mirrors that serves as both the Empress’ home and the spirit world. And
though with each shift in lighting the designer (Herbert Wernicke) usually achieves
stunning results, it is still an empty, cavernous space – one that would require
fine acting and movement to make hours spent on this stage anything close to
Yet, none of the singers acted well – they were either static or overacting (Ms.
Goerke ludicrously played her storming out of the home in the huffiest of huffs,
replete with a proud tossing of her shawl around her shoulder). Bad acting can often
feel par for the course at the opera, but it is still our duty to cringe at it.
At times, J. Knighten Smit’s stage direction was baffling as it disregarded elements of
the libretto – as in the third act, where the Nurse (Ildikó Komlósi) and the Empress
go on discussing whether they should get out of their boat, long after Smit had them
abandon it. In fact, the boat was generally in fine comedic form – getting stuck twice
during its grand exit, eventually being just yanked off the stage.
It is still gorgeous music, and was generally well sung, with Goerke’s turn as the
Dyer’s wife easily the standout. Regular guest conductor Vladimir Jurowski captured
the high melodrama as well as the quieter, chamberesque moments of the score,
particularly with the effecting violin solo towards the piece’s end.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Geoffrey Lokke