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Opera in 3 acts
Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
First performed October 10 1919, Staatsoper, Vienna
This production first seen February 2 2002
Sung in German with German & English surtitles
Introduction (on video, in German) available here and on YouTube shortly before opening night
The Emperor is married to the daughter of Keikobad, King of the Spirits. He won her while out hunting when a white gazelle he wounded with an arrow was suddenly transformed into a beautiful woman. They are very happy. She has lost the power to transform herself into an animal since her marriage. She is, however, not completely human as she casts no shadow, the symbol of human nature, fertility and motherhood. A messenger from Keikobad appears and tells the nurse that unless the Empress casts a shadow within the next three days the Emperor will be turned to stone and the Empress returned to the spirit world. The Emperor sets off on a three day hunting trip, looking for his lost falcon. The falcon visits the Empress, singing “The woman casts no shadow, the Emperor must be turned to stone”. She's desperate and ready to do anything. The nurse tells her that they can only find a shadow in the world of human beings, which the nurse despises. They arrive, in disguise, at the home of Barak the Dyer, his wife, and his three brothers. His wife wishes the brothers would leave the house for good. Barak dreams of having lots of children but his discontented wife does not. The Empress and her nurse offer their services as maids. The nurse instinctively knows she can persuade Barak’s wife to sell her shadow. Using magic, she promises her a life of luxury in return for her shadow. The Empress is not aware how devious her nurse has been in making this transaction. Their conversation has meant that Barak’s supper's not ready in time. The nurse conjures one up. Alone, Barak’s wife hears the cries of her unborn children coming from a pan in which fish are frying. Barak returns to find his marriage bed divided, part of the pact his wife has sealed with the nurse means that she must deny her husband for three days. He lies alone, hearing voices singing the praises of marital love. ACT II The Empress and nurse will act as servants to Barak’s wife for three days. The nurse, hoping to lead Barak’s wife astray, conjures up a young man, whom Barak’s wife resists. Barak is miserable. The Emperor, lost out hunting, is led home by the falcon. He eventually finds his wife asleep in the falconer’s house, smelling of mankind. He resolves to kill her but cannot bring himself to do so. The Empress is very troubled and, feeling sorry for Barak, decides that she cannot take a shadow that can only be won through pain and guilt. The nurse is even more demonic on the third day. Barak’s wife, whipped into a frenzy by the nurse’s wiles, throws her shadow on the floor, tells Barak she's been unfaithful to him and sold her shadow. He reveals the strong side of his character. Intent on killing her, a sword appears as if by magic. She tells him that everything she has told him is not true, is repentent and begs him to kill her immediately. The nurse whisks the Empress away, fearing that stronger powers than hers are at work. ACT III Barak and his wife have been sucked into the spirit world and separated from each other. Both regret their actions and have forgiven each other. They now truly love and long for one another for the first time. Voices call to them to ascend. The nurse and Empress get out of a boat that has taken them to the temple of the spirit world. The Empress prepares for her father’s judgement. Barak and his wife, separately, meet the nurse outside the door to the temple, which she has been barred from entering. She spitefully sends them off in different directions. The nurse is banished to the world of humans. The Empress is told that if she drinks of the waters of life the shadow will be hers and her husband saved. Refusing to obtain happiness at the expense of others, the water disappears. She sees the Emperor – only his eyes appear not yet to have turned to stone. Tormented, she is tempted again by the water of life and, again, refuses it. Her goodness and strength are rewarded. The Emperor returns to life, she casts her own shadow, and both couples sing of their joy and humanity, accompanied by the voices of their unborn children.
Hugo von Hofmannsthal delved into the worlds of Arabian fairy tales, Norse and Christian mythology to create Richard Strauss' »fantastic opera«. Making final touches to Ariadne auf Naxos and World War I meant that finishing the work had to be delayed, but the resulting masterpiece, with its fairy tale structure and intoxicating music, was overwhelming. Christof Nel's 2003 production of this extraordinary work, with sometimes puzzling, enigmatic texts by Hofmannsthal, makes it seem to fly by, whisking you along with it. In keeping with the underlying oriental fairy tale between the worlds of spirits and humans, Nel managed to convey mysterious insights into the psyche of the protagonists with meticulous direction.