Die Frau ohne Schatten

Richard Strauss


Act I

Emperor of the South-Eastern Islands has married the Spirit King’s daughter, a beautiful maiden whom he had wounded and captured in the form of a white gazelle. Since her marriage, she has lost her magic power of changing into an animal, but she is still not fully part of the mortal world, the fact that she has no shadow being a symbol of the infertility of her love. This pleases the nurse, who has followed her from the spirit realm and who hates the mortal world and the Emperor.
The Spirit King, angered, sends secret messengers to confer with the nurse.The Emperor and Empress, knowing nothing of this, pass blissful nights together. During the day, however, the Emperor goes hunting, leaving his wife alone with the nurse. One morning, a falcon with a talisman in its claws circles above the secluded summerhouse where the Empress is kept isolated from human society. It is the Emperor’s favourite falcon, which he had driven away as it helped him hunt down the white gazelle. The Empress hears its lament: «Time is  running out, and still the woman throws no shadow, so the Emperor will be turned to stone». The meaning is clear to her: she has left the spirit world, but the Emperor’s jealous love has not sufficed to receive her completely into the mortal world. Thus she is suspended between the two; the curse, however, is not upon her, but upon her husband, brought about by his selfish love.Appalled, she determines to find a shadow, at whatever cost, and begs the nurse to help her.
The nurse, with her keen, demonic knowledge of the human world, knows that there are certain predicaments from which an unfortunate mortal can espace only by forfeiting his shadow. So they set off for the world of men. Barak the dyer is no longer young, but he is a hard worker and strong as a camel. He supports his young and pretty but discontented wife, and three brothers. He would like to hove a throng of children to support, as well, but his marriage, like the Emperor’s, is childless. The Empress and the nurse, disguised as servants, enter the dyer’s humble home. The nurse realises immediately that the sullen young wife would be ready to sacrifice her shadow – and thus her unborn children – for fine clothes and jewels and ardent suitors. So she waxes eloquent, charming and flattering the young woman, winning her confidence by conjuring up wondrous feasts and visions of luxury. Barak’s wife agrees to the exchange.
The Empress looks on in silence, scarcely comprehending this terrible bargain by which she is to profit. The pact is made, the guests vanish abruptly, leaving the dyer’s wife alone. But from the frying-pan, in which seven small fishes are simmering, she hears the voices of her unborn children lamenting in the dark. Perspiring with fear, she staggers to a bundle of firewood in the corner, then into bed. The unsuspecting dyer returns home to find himself alone, and the marriage bed divided in two, according to the pact with the witch. Voices are heard from outside; the nightwatchman’s cry extols marriage and parenthood: Ye wedded folk, lying in each other’s arms, you are the bridge across the great abyss, on which the dead return again to life! Blessed be the fruit of your love! The dyer and his wife lie silent on their separate beds.

Act II

The ordeals begin – all four must be purified: the dyer and his wife, the Emperor and Empress, the one couple too closely bound to dull earthliness, the other too proud and distant from the earth.To lure the dyer’s wife on to the path of sin, the nurse summons the apparition of a fair and languishing youth, who appears always when the dyer is out of the house. The dyer’s wife imagines she hates her stolid, kindhearted husband, so that to be unfaithful to him would be a small matter – yet she cannot bring herself to do this. Little by little, however, the nurse lures her on. Barak has no idea of the turmoil in his house and in his wife’s breast, but his heart weighs heavy, for he feels threatened in some obscure way, as if something were crying out to him for help. Could it he – unbeknown to him – the voices of his unborn children? For they, after all, are at stake – they, and the shadow.
The Empress, though innocent, is guiltily involved in this iniquitous bargain. With ambivalent feelings, she spends her days in the dyer’s hut. At night, in the Emperor’s falcon house, she dreams fearfully of her husband roving through the desolate forest, alone in his pride, consumed with suspicious jealousy, his heart already turned to stone; she sees him, distraught, entering the gate of a temple, stony and gravelike – to meet with what fate? The answer is given by her own fears, as the falcon’s cry echoes in her dream: «The woman throws no shadow, the Emperor will be turned to stone». She awakes with a start from such dreams. Her heart pounding with fear and grief – but her days, spent amongst earth people, are even more fraught with danger than her nights. No child of the spirit realm can dwell with impunity amongst earth people; unlike the nurse, a lowier, demonic being, she is unprotected in their presence.
Yet, deep down, she is somehow attracted to earth people;moved by the dyer’s dull suffering, she begins to feel guilty before this unsuspecting man who for her sake is to be cheated of his happiness. The third night com s, its louring darkness seeming to threaten heaven and earth, as the nurse urges fulfilment of the pact. The dyer’s brothers moan with terror, like animals before an earthquake, and the dyer’s wife babbles hysterically, telling her husband that she has a lover – though this is not in fact true – and that she has sold her shadow, thus renouncing her unborn children. Barak signs to his brothers to light a fire, and with a cry of horror he and all the others realise that the young woman is standing in the firelight like a witch, without a shadow.
The nurse rejoices: the pact is fullfilled in word and spirit. The one woman has given up her shadow, the other may now snatch it up. In this terrible and decisive moment, the hitherto mild Barak, now mighty in stature, pronounces the death sentence. A sword springs from above into his hand: have the unborn children sent it to arm their father against the wicked mother who would bar their way of life? The nurse is uneasy at such signs; she feels that higher powers are taking a hand, powers for which her demonic cunning is no match. Instead of reaching for the shadow, the Empress stretches her arms heavenwards; she will not sully her hands with human blood.
Barak’s wife throws herself down before him, ready to die by his hand. Magic powers are released, the earth opens and swallows up the dyer and his wife, the hut collapses, the wails of the brothersfill the darkness, a river bursts in, and the nurse wraps the Empress in a cloak and leaves with her in a boat which has magically appeared.


The spirit world has opened up, surrounding the protagonists. The ultimate ordeal is yet to come. The boat in which the nurse watches over the sleeping Empress arrives at the entrance to the temple leading into the mountain. Trumpets sound, as if calling to judgement. The Empress awakes and mounts the steps to the temple. She knows the summons is meant for her. In a dungeon further underground are the dyer and his wife, each unaware of the other’s presence, since they are separated by a wall.
Commanded by a voice, they ascend to the upper level, still unaware of each other, but each thinking with longing of the other: Barak loving and forgiving, his wife humbly discovering love for the first time.When they emerge in front of the temple, they find the nurse being refused entry by the spirit messenger. Consumed with rage and frustration, she deliberately misleads the couple, sending them in opposite directions around the temple so that they cannot find each other. Pitifully they call out to each other, and their cries are heard as far as the inner sanctum of the temple, where the Empress awaits the judgement. But who sits in judgement? Is it the King of the Spirits, her stern father? The figure is hidden by a curtain. There is no reply when the Empress takes courage to speak; all that can be heard are Barak and his wife calling each other, and the murmuring stream of golden water – the water of life. «Drink», calls a voice from above, «drink, and the woman’s shadow will be yours.» But the Empress draws back without drinking.What she wishes is to see who is sitting in judgement, to hear her judgement and her penance, to have her place in the world of men.The water recedes and the curtain becomes transparent.
There sits the Emperor himself, turned to stone, except for his eyes, which are fixed upon her in desperation. Ghostly menacing voices repeat the pronouncement: «The woman throws no shadow, the Emperor will he turned to stone». The statue becomes dark and leaden, before its feet the water of life springs up once more. Avoice coaxes gently: «Say only “I will” – and the woman’s shadow is yours, and this man will come to life and arise and go with you». Torn by her own desires and the anguished, despairing cries of Barak and his wife, still seeking each other outside, the Empress, after an inner struggle, brings herself to refuse. Thus she is victorious, like the woman who forced herself to relinquish the child before Solomon’s throne.
She is victorious – for herself, for the Emperor, who would otherwise have remained a statue, and for the couple who had to be purified through suffering and elevated from their dull earthliness. She now casts a shadow across the temple floor, and the Emperor rises from his throne to descend the steps. The voices of the unborn children rejoice on high, joined by those of the royal couple and of Barak and his wife, now reunited. The temple dissolves, to become a radiant golden landscape leading earthwards, as the children’s voices sing hope for the future.  
Teatro alla Scala