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Fairy Empress Seeks Shadow in Strauss’s Weird Homage to Mothers

Anne Schanewilms, center, as the Empress in "Die Frau Ohne Schatten" by Richard Strauss. The production, by Christof Loy, opened at the Salzburg Festival. Photographer: Monika Rittershaus/Salzburger Festspiele via Bloomberg

A fairy empress needs to steal a human shadow to keep her emperor from turning to stone in Richard Strauss’s bizarrely beautiful opera “Die Frau Ohne Schatten” (The Woman Without a Shadow.)

The shadow stands for fertility. The message of the opera is that women who can’t or don’t want to bear children are unnatural -- even inhuman -- and that motherhood and wifehood are the only paths to female fulfillment. That’s a tough sell in our age of equality and over-population.

Even in 1919 when the opera premiered, it must have been a stretch -- after all, World War I was hardly the heyday of the nuclear family, with millions of widows struggling alone to feed their children.

At the Salzburg Festival, German director Christof Loy attempts to circumvent that weirdness by presenting a tale within the tale. His staging has the singers of the Vienna State Opera recording the work in winter 1955, huddled in woolly coats over music stands, arriving and leaving clutching their scores. The concert-hall set remains unchanged through three acts.

The result is almost a concert performance in 1950s period costume, though there are times when the opera takes over and the characters interact. Barak the dyer and his belligerent, dissatisfied wife take swipes at each other; the emperor (Stephen Gould) throws a chair across the stage in a jealous fit when he discovers his fairy wife has consorted with humans.

These cameos of emotion -- combined with the opulence and beauty of Strauss’s rich score -- draw the audience in for brief interludes. Yet the whole staging feels too static, too intellectual, too distanced from the text.

War Guilt

Loy’s layered solution is neatly evasive and professionally executed, yet he is avoiding grappling with Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s odd, outdated libretto. His own detailed story-within-the-story (some characters are supposed to carry World War II guilt) only emerges in full in his alternative plot summary printed in the program.

For an opera with such an anti-feminist message, it seems contradictory that the female characters should determine all the action. Anne Schwanewilms looks pure and sounds otherworldly as the compassionate fairy empress who risks her own happiness and rejects the wife’s shadow for fear of hurting gruff, kind Barak. Michaela Schuster was slyly manipulative as the evil nurse and Evelyn Herlitzius gave a powerful rendition of Barak’s wife.

Still, the loudest cheers were for Christian Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic for their performance, with its light as well as shadow, both rousing and reflective. This is where the magic of this strange fairytale surfaced.

Rating: **.

“Die Frau Ohne Schatten” will be performed in Salzburg’s Grosses Festspielhaus on Aug. 4, 11, 14, 17 and 21.


What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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