Widely considered the most complex and technically demanding of Richard Strauss’ operas, Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow) is a work of tremendous musical density and inventiveness. The product of Strauss’s fourth fruitful collaboration with poet/librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, it premiered in Vienna in 1919, and calls for five top soloists in the principal roles, a handful of challenging secondary roles, an orchestra and choir of more than 100, and a set that alternates between the real and the unreal. The opera explores the mystical, grapples with themes around the human moral compass and delves into the wildest imagination of the sinister Underworld. In fact, the scope of the opera − both musically, and dramatically − is so vast and convoluted that even one of its original producers purportedly didn’t quite “get it”.  

Foremost, the opera is a prickly tale about how love does − or does not − produce the blessing of children. Music historians suggest that the theme may have been largely a reaction to the changing role of women in the face of World War I and its wake: with the number of casualties and delays getting back to normal, it was not uncommon to find a woman in a role of provider-by-default. War or no war, von Hofmannsthal was largely ambivalent towards what women should undertake towards their personal fulfilment. In any case – and here he spoke for his generation – the right to parenthood was one he felt a woman should not be denied.

Strauss himself called this opera his “child of woe,” also suggesting societal implications that go beyond a more obvious mythical component. Needless to say, the score was not received well when the opera premiered. It seemed lacking any decipherable pattern, but staged by David Pountney in a revival with a largely new cast, and with superb musicians under Peter Tilling’s energetic baton, this Zurich production was a powerful theatrical experience by any standard.

In brief, Die Frau ohne Schatten is the story of a mythical Empress (Emily Magee), who is daughter to a dark and legendary prince. We only ever “meet” the master through his enchanted Messenger (Reinhard Mayr), a winged and stringy fellow who − in a top hat and on stilts − comes straight out of the pages of an Edward Gorey fable to give us the backstory. Given the intervention of “higher powers”, the Empress is able to transform herself into any number of animals, and was wounded by the Emperor’s arrow (we know what that represents) while parading as a gazelle in the forest. She married him thereafter, yet was unable to bear him any children. When the opera begins, only three days remain for her to conceive; should she fail to do so, the Emperor (Roberto Saccà) will turn to stone, the Messenger reminds us. Tough luck, that.

Mercifully, at the bidding of her clever Nurse (Brigit Remmert), the Empress negotiates with a commoner − the Dyer’s wife (Evelyn Herlitzius) − for riches in return for her fertility. Eventually, the Empress has to come to grips with tremendous guilt for having stripped the other woman of the joy of motherhood. By acknowledging this, though, and emphatically claiming, “I don’t want it,” she ultimately gains a shadow, sees the Emperor survive and assures the opera’s happy ending for both couples.

At the beginning of Act II, Barak, the poor Dyer (Thomas Johannes Mayer) offers, “there are things happening to me that I don’t understand”. Poor man: his wife has complained that he inhibits her movement: “You think you have her in a cage like a bird you bought at market,” she chides him, while considering a pact with the Empress. Challenging her husband’s ineptitude, she sings with a viper’s tongue, and cuts off this marital bed allowance shortly thereafter. Using all the musical stamina and theatrical assets she has, German soprano Evelyn Herlitzius makes her accusations unconditionally searing.

Roberto Saccà’s Emperor was thrilling; his command of the long aria in Act II showed him as convincingly sovereign as he was human, and the tenacity and natural pomp of his voice made a perfect combination for the role. Emily Magee truly soared in her powerful high voice as the Empress, and while showing less confidence in her lower register, demonstrated superb acting skills. Thomas Johannes Mayer’s sonorous baritone locked beautifully with his wife’s agile soprano, and their isolated confessions of grief at losing the other in Act IIII was as emotive a moment as the opera contained.

Undoubtedly, any Jungian could have a heyday with the Zurich production – and indeed, the renowned Jung Institute is just down the Lake. The first and second acts are presented in a sort of bevelled “frame,” a stage inside a stage, and the modest interior and Biedermeier wallpaper mirror the “confinement” of the Empress’s dilemma. In a big role, the Nurse was made bigger by a black gown loaded with feathers. She showed all the determination and dare-devilishness of the modern day HR manager and her dark timbre gave a superb muscular influx to all her scenes.

Further, under Peter Tilling’s capable baton, the opera house’s Philharmonia Orchestra once again showed itself a tremendously gifted configuration. Concertmaster Ada Pesch, along with solo cello Claudius Hermann, should be particularly commended: their respective solos spoke of the same “higher power” that was compelling on the stage.

I did have one major reservation about the production. While the stage design is remarkable, it awards little credit to the vivid imagination of the audience, or its ability to appreciate the power of subtle implication. While Acts I and II are staged in fairly traditional Biedermeier décor, Act III brings us down to the machinations of the Underworld, where the symbols are painstakingly spelled out. The stage is given is given over entirely to a Constructivist concoction: a broken-up hodgepodge of pure white gangplanks, ice blocks, men’s legs sticking out of walls (greetings Maurizio Cattelan!), more oversized eggs, and ungainly angles, all of it rotating on an axis at various speeds. For my money, the profusion of detail snagged much of the energy of the performance, detracting from the music rather than supporting it. Clever it was, but given that von Hofmannsthal’s libretto is teeming with symbolism in its own right, one questions whether we actually need more in the set.

The herald Falcon (Beate Vollack) is also further evidence of over-saturation. Again and again, the bird underscores in dance the transformation from moral rectitude to the immoral theft of the “shadow”. The dancer’s is a supple and expressive body, but her role’s semi-pornographic pole dance over the sets’ grossly oversized eggs seemed entirely “over the top”. What’s more, the costuming is disadvantageous; it makes the dancer a glorified “Globi”, that awkward but iconic cartoon character whose books every good Swiss child has in their library.

And there was that notable pain in the form of the unborn infants. True, their final song is celestial. But cloaked as a dozen or so Little White Riding Hoods, these seeming 4-6 years-olds either potter past with enormous, blanched baby faces, or decorate the remote corners of the set as it spins. Their lantern-like, vacuous faces recall a cheerful bunch that show up in the scariest of horror movies.

So audience spirits were boosted when the recriminations on stage were over and good spirits prevailed. Zurich’s Frau offered a small marathon of exceedingly opulent and multifaceted music, and a test bed for a whole host of psychological interpretations and feminist insights. Yet revolving around the theme of the value of children, the production’s obtuse staging could only be equated with a birth: You know you’re having a baby, but you never know how long the labour pains will last.