Richard Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten” is a fairytale, set in dreamland, full of signs and symbols. It’s the story of two couples, of two women mostly, who have to face a series of trials: one of them to save the man she loves, the other to find her place in life. A voyage of initiation, like every fairytale worth its salt, where the symbols speak directly to the heart of the spectator, and everyone can understand just what they need. That is the way fairytales work and heal. For his staging, Krzysztof Warlikowski however makes the choice to interpret the story beforehand: based on the intellectual universe of the period in which the opera was written, he sees in its heroines’ troubles the typical female hysteric illnesses: sterility for one, frigidity for the other. And so we can see nurses and medical situations throughout the opera. Barak has become a simple launderette owner, whereas a dyer is part alchemist. The magical part only shines through every once and again, when extras in animal costumes walk the stage or beautiful video installations just float along with the music. Most of the time however Malgorzata Szczesniak’s sets just seem incoherent and arbitrary. Kirill Petrenko once again manages to square the circle: his conducting is tense, intense, taut, and still has this Viennese suppleness and sweetness where it is asked for. The Bayrische Staatsorchester and its brilliant soloists and the excellent cast are perfectly up to the task: musically this performance is as good as it gets. Ricarda Merbeth, soprano, deploys the whole amplitude of her voice only in Act 3. She is the woman who has no shadow, the fairy that the Emperor conquered as he found her wearing the body of a white gazelle. Robert Dean Smith, Heldentenor if there ever was, plays the Emperor with noble humility. The Empress loves her husband, he comes to her bed every night. She is not able to conceive his child however, she doesn’t become totally human, she can have no shadow. Her father, the mighty and invisible Keikobad, has decreed that the Emperor will turn to stone, if she doesn’t get pregnant in the first year of marriage. Her old nurse, sung by the fabulous mezzo Deborah Polaski, takes her to the land of the humans, where she knows a woman who might sell her own shadow. She is the wife of Barak, the dyer. Soprano Elena Pankratova brings to life this multi-layered character with her splendid, agile voice. Wolfgang Koch, bass-baritone, is Barak. Warm velvety voice full of temperament, he gives intelligent depth to the humble tenderness of his character. Finally, the two women find salvation in giving up their egos and plans and everything ends well for the four of them.
Much merited applause and bravos galore – it’s been an exciting evening!