Strauss’s Shadow Over Munich:
Die Frau ohne Schatten Overwhelms at Munich’s Opera Festival

Photo: Bayerische Staatsoper

Munich’s summer opera festival dwelled heavily on the works of hometown composer Richard Strauss. The highlight by far was this revival of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten, which premiered here in 2013. The most soulful of Strauss’s operas, Frau ohne Schatten was composed during the First World War and, after much delay, had its premiere in Vienna in October 1919. By then, Mitteleuropa was irrevocably shattered by the horrors of war and the decisive end of most surviving features of the continent’s old regime. The quest for catharsis led European artists in myriad directions, from the absurd and meaningless to the spiritual and profound.

Die Frau ohne Schatten—or ‘Frosch’ (frog) as Strauss mischievously called it for short—descends into the mists of mythology to contemplate humanity on its earthiest level. The titular ‘woman without a shadow’ is an Empress of divine birth who has been unable to bear children despite a year of marriage to the Emperor. A messenger from her father, the unseen god Keikobad, arrives to announce that if she does not cast the metaphorical ‘shadow’ within three days, the Emperor will turn to stone. Her manipulative Nurse claims to know the ways of humankind and suggests that the Empress go with her to find a solution among mortals. There they find the dyer Barak and his wife, a miserable couple who are also childless. Presenting the Dyer’s Wife with the spectral temptation of a handsome young man and promises of great riches, the Empress and Nurse nearly convince her to part with her reproductive abilities.

When it becomes apparent that the Dyer’s Wife no longer casts her shadow, Barak nearly kills her. His sudden show of violent passion transforms his wife’s contempt into devotion as a miraculous flood separates them. In a soul-stirring scene in which they appear separately, but on stage at the same time, they reflect on what has transpired and seek each other out to reconcile. The Empress discovers that she has come to admire humanity and renounces any interest in acquiring the childbearing ability of a mortal woman. Parting forever from her manipulative Nurse, she embraces mortality. As both couples are reunited, the curse on the Emperor is broken and both women now miraculously have shadows. A chorus of unborn children hail the transformation as the curtain falls.

The allegorical implications were far from lost on a war-weary audience, though critical responses were, perhaps for that very reason, decidedly mixed. The only named character who appears in the opera is Barak, whose name means blessing in Arabic. The anonymity of the characters, and their mythological milieu, suggests that they could be any of us. The unborn children who cheer the plot’s resolution suggest life-giving gifts that might otherwise be sacrificed to mortal ambition, a pertinent declaration for the suffering war generation, but still a powerful image over a hundred years later. Joshua Kosman, the San Francisco Chronicle’s music critic, recently condemned the opera as “problematic” in light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion decision because the opera’s unborn children are conscious, self-aware, and have definite opinions about the joy and value of their existence. This clearly bothers Kosman as his own city’s opera company approaches a production of Frau ohne Schatten next season—so much so that he felt compelled to write a special article raising concerns about it as a kind of ‘trigger warning’ for woke sensitivities.

Anyone who recalled the perturbed San Franciscan critic’s comments as this performance unfolded, however, would have rightly cursed his name. The message was so beautifully conveyed that sourpuss political objections could not have aroused the slightest sympathy.

Warlikowski’s productions tend toward the visceral. His exploration of the opera’s mythological content led him to profound meditations on the fluidity of space and time, of the real and the unreal. As a visual aid, before any music was played, the performance began with a short segment of Alain Resnais’s 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad, projected over the sets in 3-D. Resnais’s film is about unnamed characters who contemplate whether they have encountered each other before. Not coincidentally, the action of the film unfolds in a dreamscape captured in the royal palaces around Munich. The effect could come across as an overbearing attempt to impose Warlikowski’s directorial vision on the opera, but the ultimate judgment might depend on how one feels about Resnais’s film.

As it was, using the film went a long way toward setting the tone. A roughly contemporary look presents the characters as intelligible, if neurotic, denizens of the modern world. Warlikowski does give into the recent trend to rely on mental illness to explain the psychological drama. Accordingly, we see the Nurse injecting a visibly disturbed Empress with some sort of pharmaceutical, but the effect is muted enough not to overtake the larger themes. Projection effects do a good job of simulating the flood and other natural or supernatural phenomena.

Die Frau ohne Schatten is notoriously difficult to cast. It requires five principals with voices of Wagnerian proportions who can compete with an orchestra heavy on brass playing a score loaded with crescendos. They must also have dramatic gifts capable of conveying emotions of unparalleled depth and sophistication—the Empress’s most gut-wrenching lines, uttered as she struggles with her conscience in Act III, are spoken.

For this festival performance, the Bavarian State Opera filled the bill impressively. Camilla Nylund started cautiously as the Empress, and showed some thinness in her line, but expanded and expounded as the performance continued. By the time her character dumped the Nurse, hers was some of the most moving Strauss singing I have ever heard. Eric Cutler’s Emperor left a fine, melodic impression, though his lighter tenor was not always suited to the part’s heroic moments. Michael Volle, a leading Wagner baritone in all the major theaters, delivered a hefty, grounded Barak, at turns stormy and sympathetic. He was fortunate to be paired with the exceptional Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, whose Dyer’s Wife radiated power and elegance while matching the character’s fraught emotions in demanding stage action. It was entirely appropriate, if perhaps overdue, that the performance of July 28 also witnessed the company’s intendant Serge Dorny bestowing upon her at curtain calls the prestigious title of Kammersängerin, an honorific left over from the days when Germany’s royal courts recognized distinguished artists. Mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster has been singing the Nurse for many years now but remains freshly vindictive. The Romanian baritone Bogdan Baciu contributed a stentorian Messenger.

Conductor Sebastian Weigle sometimes approaches performances cautiously and at a slower pace than some would prefer. His Frau, however, dived with abandon into Strauss’ rich score and held nothing back in the big moments. Precise and even gentle gestures captured the subtleties with great aplomb.

The Bavarian State Opera’s exploration of the uncertainties of love and romance continued the following evening, when the celebrated baritone Christian Gerhaher completed a three-concert cycle of songs by Strauss’s contemporary Hugo Wolf. Each of these Liederabende presented a selection from Wolf’s song collections with Gerhaher singing alongside a young soprano, who performed some of the songs. This third concert, which featured the bright-voiced Anna Prohaska, consisted of the Mörike Lieder, songs Wolf composed in 1888 to texts by the German poet Eduard Mörike. Gerhaher and Prohaska performed 33 of the cycle’s 53 songs, with the balance of them favoring dark and demonic themes offset by elegance of both verse and imagery. Like Die Frau ohne Schatten, a current of metaphors around springtime and rebirth swung the beat upward. Gerhaher’s lighter tones drew out a splendid variety of textures, while Prohaska’s lithe touch spelled innocence itself.

Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University.