I don't know what possessed the usually reliable librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal to write this. It has been compared with The Magic Flute but, to me, A Midsummer Night's Dream came more to mind. We have three levels of characters, the spirits, the regal and the ordinary people. The story, as far as it is possible to summarise it, concerns an emperor and an empress who cannot have children. This is because the empress is the daughter of Keikobad, the king of the spirits and she has lost her shadow during her transformation into human form. For some reason that I don't understand, not having a shadow is symbolic of being unable to bear children. Her nurse suggests popping down to earth to see if they can pick up a shadow from someone who does not need one. They end up in the home of Barak, a dyer, and his wife. The dyer's wife does not have a name even though she is the main character in the opera. She is unsympathetic to Barak's urge to have children on account of their impoverished circumstances. In fact, she also wants him to kick out his three disabled brothers who live with them. If you must know, one has only one arm, another has only one eye and the third is a hunchback. The wife readily agrees to sell her shadow but later regrets it. The empress then has second thoughts mainly because she is impressed by what a good, honest man Barak is. It turns out that this has all been a test and when she refuses to take the wife's shadow she acquires one of her own. The opera ends with a joyful quartet with the two happy couples looking forward to having many children.
I cannot say that I was enamoured of the theme. It all sounded like Pro-Life propaganda, only more so. There is a chorus of unborn children but, more accurately, they are not yet conceived children. It's as if there were all these children waiting to be conceived if only their parents were not so selfish.
This could have been a disaster in the hands of a German postdramatic director. In fact director Jonathan Kent plays it with a pretty straight bat, possibly taking the view that the opera is so weird that it does not need extra layers of symbolism. He successfully manages to convey to the stage most of von Hofmannstahl's weird imagery although the chorus of unborn children singing in a pan of frying fish is quite a big ask. Even with a synopsis in front of me and with Kent's clear staging I struggled to make sense of the plot.
It is, though, quite beautiful to look at with a fabulous castle for the emperor and empress who look like a pimped up version of the king and queen of hearts. Barak's hut is also a fabulous set. It is a room that serves as a garage, a launderette for his dying business and a bed-sitter. I was impressed by way that Mariinsky kept changing the scenes from one to the other. I don't know whether this was done in real time but I suspect that it was because Strauss provides lots of intermezzi to cover these changes.
From a musical point of view these intermezzi are almost the best bits of the opera. There is a huge orchestra, under Valery Gergiev that makes the most of the sumptuous tunes and luscious harmonies. To be honest, the vocal lines do not add much to what the orchestra is doing. The exception to this, if you are still awake at the end of this long opera, is in the final act. Here we have the vocal lines soaring over the orchestra, particularly in the joyful final quartet which is somewhat reminiscent of Der Rosenkavalier. Edem Umerov is a lovable Barak in his one size fits nobody tee shirt. Mlada Khudolei gives a touching performance as the unhappy empress with some frighteningly high and complex music. The star of the show is Olga Sergevea as The Wife in another high soprano part of stunning complexity. She gives a gut-wrenching performance as a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
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