Three Fragments on Die Frau ohne Schatten

Thoughts on opera’s “child of woe” at 99.

October boasts the anniversaries of more Strauss stage premieres than any other month of the year. Both versions of Ariadne auf Naxos (1912 and 1916) and the similarly rococo Capriccio (1942) all bowed within said interval. The one outlier among the group is the fantastical Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919). This year marks 99 turns of the sun since the caecilian “FROSCH” (as Strauss came to abbreviate it) made its inauspicious debut in war-torn Vienna at the newly christened Staatsoper. Amid many decades of reevaluation, this Erzählung has aged somewhat differently than the rest of Strauss’s oeuvre, particularly with its perceived endorsement of the subjection of women to roles of domesticity and the enforced bearing of children. Yet as Hugo Shirley’s research has shown, librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s peculiar attempt at creating a Kunstmärchen, an artful fairy tale, replicates a number of tropes present in Gozzi, Goldoni, Goethe, the Brothers Grimm, as well as a host of other sources. Such a goal and heritage offers a partial explanation for its allegorical emphasis on conditions of conception and fertility.

This is not to say Hofmannsthal succeeds entirely, nor should his cerebral approach to metaphor be excused on its own terms. Die Frau is perhaps the largest case of his so-called “harmony of contrasts” but it is likewise his most opaque. Strauss famously articulated his concerns with the libretto: “It has nothing to do with a little more or less music or text. The difficulty rests with the subject itself with its Romanticism, its symbols: figures like the Emperor and the Empress—also the Nurse—cannot be filled with red corpuscles like a Marschallin, an Octavian, an Ochs.” (One marvels at Strauss’s reservations about the Nurse, as she remains one of his most engaging anti-heroines on par with Klytämnestra.) Yet at a base level, Strauss’s criticisms linger. Indeed, it is hardly surprising that Die Frau signaled a caesura in their collaboration. Die Frau had been intended as the successor to Der Rosenkavalier, and perhaps fittingly for a work concerned with the bearing of children, it had a prolonged and woeful gestation. The intervening projects Ariadne auf Naxos and Josephs Legende also threw up no shortage of hurdles, and it would be nearly a decade after the premiere of Die Frau before another Strauss–Hofmannsthal opera would appear.

Strauss begged Hofmannsthal that this work should be the “last Romantic opera,” and, to a certain extent, he was correct. The composer was always precise with his generic subtitles, and Die Frau is among the few stage works in his oeuvre to be branded “Oper.” On a much broader level, standing at the end of the long nineteenth century, Die Frau’s allegorical “fairy tale” plot shrouded in rich orchestration and vocal heroics seems a far cry from what Alban Berg was toiling on with Wozzeck contemporaneously. The presence of “fairy tale” elements also posits the opera in the legacy of the (maligned) Märchenoper tradition as embodied in the works of Engelbert Humperdinck, Hans Sommer, and Siegfried Wagner. Given the high level of abstraction in its scenario, characters and text, Die Frau could also be labeled the last “symbolist opera.” Such qualities reflect the salient elements commentators have identified in symbolist opera, including a “strong antipathy and resistance to external realism” and a propensity to “evoke interior realities and states of the soul.”[1] Such concerns lie at the metaphorical heart of Die Frau, where most of the principal characters attempt on some level to attain a measure of humanity.

Given the opera’s emphasis on magic—a first for Strauss and Hofmannsthal, discounting briefly the baroque theatrics of Ariadne—a notable feature of Die Frau merits greater attention: the proliferation of scenic transition (Verwandlung) in the stage action. This is the first time in a stage work by Strauss where he employs music for scenic transitions within acts and where, at least in the libretto and published scores as written, interior settings alternate with exterior locales within acts.[2] I use the qualifier “as written” to reflect the fact that that contemporary productions frequently employ scenic and dramatic devices that follow different alignments than what the text specifies. (Nothing wrong with these choices, of course, but the distinction must be made.) As written, there are eleven scenic “divisions” across the three acts though there are not any explicitly labeled scenes as such. There are eight transitional passages between these scenes as well as a wealth of internal moments where pantomime and magic are accompanied by orchestral music and other effects. Scene 2 of act 1 contains several: the extended D major passage between Barak and his Wife, the gossamer apparitions conjured by the Nurse to tempt the Wife, and, (in)famously, the passage for the self-frying fish.

Designer Alfred Roller’s rendering for the apparition conjured by the Nurse for Barak’s Wife in act 1 for the work’s world premiere in Vienna, 1919.

The first and still perhaps the most spectacular transition in Die Frau is the “Flight to Earth” (Erdenflug) of the Nurse and the Empress between the two scenes of act 1. The parallels to Wagner’s Rheingold are legion: two otherworldly beings descend to the world of mortals in order to fulfill (or rather hijack) a deadly bargain overshadowing the action. Like the transition between scenes 2 and 3 of Rheingold, key motivic material from the previous scene telescopes out for emphasis, particularly the melodies associated with Empress and Nurse’s contrasting apostrophes to the new day, each beginning with “Ein Tag bricht an.” The thematic ideas associated with Keikobad, the Emperor, the curse of petrification, and what will become the bargain the pair strike with Barak’s Wife also assert themselves in the tumult. Subscribing to the Nurse’s view of the realm of humanity as a noisy and fundamentally inhospitable place, Strauss employs a cadre of percussive effects to signify “the abyss of the human world”: rute, castanets, tam-tam, Chinese gongs, and a wind machine. Hofmannsthal specifies that this transition be concealed by a transition curtain (Zwischenvorhang) compared to later instances in the opera where clouds and mists are stipulated as the means of concealment. The action continues without a break, moving ahead of the Empress and the Nurse to the hut of Barak where his three brothers are literally at each other’s throats.

One passage in Die Frau has, at least for me, the claim to be the most sublime music to come from Strauss’s pen. This is the song of the watchmen at the end of act 1, a paean to couples when all the romantic pairs in the opera couldn’t be further apart. Strauss cast the passage in A-flat major, familiarly a key for solemnity and sublimity in Wagner and also Humperdinck.

“You couples in the houses of this city:
Love one another more than your lives,
And hark! You are entrusted with the seed of Life
not for the sake of your lives,
but rather for the sake of your Love!

You couples who lay in Love’s embrace—
You are the link, bridging the abyss,
over which the dead come back to life!
Hallowed be your work of Love!”

While one can take the appeal to task for its ostensible call to heteronormative procreation, what has always stuck out to me is its emphasis on the affection between spouses as the goal of greater value. The imagery of the bridge is also critical, a motif that surfaces elsewhere in the opera and in Hofmannsthal’s works. Really, the principal characters in Die Frau are all loveless in one way or another, mired by stalled emotional and physical connections. Only by their embraces in act 3 do they all enter into a new state of living with each other. One thinks of Forster’s immortal exhortation—“Only connect!”

This sequence also contains Hofmannsthal’s most poignant stage direction. In the pause between the watchmen’s strophes, Barak calls to his Wife: “Do you hear the watchmen, child, and their call?” There is no utterance from his Wife, only the parenthetical instruction “keine Antwort.” No answer. At this moment, the Wife is clearly observing the instructions that she and Barak sleep apart for three days, and any connection between them after retiring would seemingly imperil that. But the direction provokes a number of questions. Does she want to answer? Does she hear them? It’s a moment that offers plenty of staging potential depending upon the division of the scenic space. It’s a small moment to be sure, but in a work of titanic scope like Die Frau ohne Schatten, such moments are in and of themselves magical.

[1] Philip Weller, “Symbolist opera: trials, triumphs, tributaries,” in The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Opera, ed. Mervyn Cooke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 72-73.

[2] Though action of the diegetic opera Ariadne takes place on an island, the action is still “played out” within the space of the house of the richest man in Vienna. The Veronese settings of Josephs Legende bend the distinctions of interior and exterior settings to an extent.

Author: Ryan M. Prendergast

Ph.D. Candidate @ the University of Illinois. Theater, opera, music, media, art, history, detritus. I smile, of course, and go on drinking tea.

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