The shadowlands of fantasy

To be or not to be a mother, that is the question at the heart of Richard Strauss’s opera Die Frau ohne Schatten, a convoluted, densely allegorical, psychologically vibrant quest-drama. 

Premiered in war-torn Vienna in 1919, it comprises a mammoth score of sustained inspiration from Strauss and a similarly breathtaking wealth of ideas and allusions from the unstoppable librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Hofmannsthal, whose brainchild this really is, was drawn to the psychological side of fairy stories and he eventually got Strauss in on the project. Often compared to Mozart’s The Magic Flute, The Woman without a Shadow is now widely considered Strauss’s magnum opus.

The composer thought so himself, as did Hofmannsthal, but the Viennese opera-goers anno 1919 were sceptically nonplussed and far from entertained upon first experiencing the bombastic three-act opera. If art is entertainment for intellectuals (as Woody Allen has said), it’s true you’d have to be impressively well-read to appreciate the references to The Arabian Nights, Swedish folk tales, Goethe’s oeuvre, and the fairy tales of Novalis and Chamisso. Some cocktail, right? But one mustn’t sit through it like a lecture; there is no great message (except that artists are rarely philosophical and pedagogical at the same time).

Today, however, it looks as though both Strauss and Hofmannsthal were ahead of their time. The work has certainly aged beautifully; enthusiastic audiences have greeted it at every juncture.

When Kasper Holten, the former artistic director of the Opera, first unveiled his daring interpretation in May 2011, it was clearly a production built for future reruns. The critics loved it and rewarded such accolades as “lively, spectacular, mellifluous”. Another described it as “sublimely successful operatic magic”. Involving a dyer in one of the central roles, the narrative lends itself willingly to visually aesthetic and literally colourful (read: paint-drenched) scenes. Politiken newspaper found much to like about the “four hours eyecandy” magnificently accompanying the “grand, late Romantic music”.

Not to forget that in light of what it surely takes to make such a monumental work come to life, no director will want to turn the page before absolutely necessary.

“When we’ve chosen to restage The Woman without a Shadow it’s because it’s such a tremendous feat to stage it, and we want as many to have the chance to see it as possible. Another reason is that we get an opportunity to present a number of exciting, new artists,” Holten says before name-checking the acclaimed conductor Michael Boder. A force to reckon with, as Holten knows from first-hand experience, Boder has recently impressed with Alban Berg’s Wozzeck and Lulu at the Royal Danish Theatre. Another star to highlight is Ann Petersen in the role of the Empress – in 2010 she grabbed a ‘Singer of the Year’ Reumert Award as Ariadne on Naxos.

The Empress is the titular, shadowless character – her strange deficiency a sign of her being half-human/half-spirit. It also symbolises her lamented inability to bear children. The Emperor (Johnny van Hal) receives the news that his father-in-law, the lord of the spirits, will turn him into stone unless the Empress casts a shadow within three days. Another woman (Linda Watson), married to the poor dyer Barak (Johan Reuter and James Johnson), is fully human – she is also infertile but she accepts it. The Empress’s nurse offers this woman a life of luxury if she’ll relinquish her shadow to the Empress.

The plan seems unproblematic until an ethical problem arises when Barak realises his love for his wife and the Empress realises her own selfishness. There are plenty of other twists charged with philosophical symbolism, including one that involves Barak and his wife being swallowed up by the earth when in a murderous rage he raises his sword to kill her – illustrating instant karma, apparently.

Spookily – but memorably – the opera also features singing from a choir of unborn children. But in terms of straight opera, it’s the endlessly admired leitmotifs of the Emperor and Empress that will probably stay with you when you return to the colourless shadows of reality.

The Woman without a Shadow
Store Scene, Operaen, Ekvipagemestervej 10, 1438 Cph K;

Performances at 18:30 on Fri, Mon, Thu, Feb 13, Mar 5, Mar 10;

Tickets 95-795kr,, 9816 5296;

230 mins including two intermissions; sung in German with Danish supertitles;

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