It took twenty-three years for it to be heard here, and the version that we are hearing has more than two dozen cuts to it, but at long last, Richard Strauss’ glorious and soaring epic “Die Frau ohne Schatten” has finally made its way back to Lyric Opera and features two of the reigning Strauss divas of our day, Deborah Voigt and Christine Brewer, filling every inch of the cavernous Civic Opera House with radiant sound. The work is the sixth and final collaboration between Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, an elaborate fairy tale tone poem saluting and reflecting centuries of German art that had the misfortune to be conceived and written during World War I and which as a result still has yet to fully find the same international audience that their earlier collaborations have. Musically, it may well stand as their greatest achievement, however, and to those of us at home in the sound and symbol world of Wagner’s “Ring,” Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and the parabolic allusions of Goethe’s “Faust,” the work stands as the culmination of an epoch. Legendary German soprano Lotte Lehman, who sang the post-war premiere, made an infamous quip about the libretto being incomprehensible that is often repeated, but it is only the work’s unfamiliarity that make this problematic. Mastering the comings and goings of the three worlds of “Schatten” is less difficult than keeping track of a single “Ring” plot line and far more relevant to the contemporary human condition. At its heart, the work is a parallel domestic battle of the sexes that mirrors the hopes and fears of every couple concerning reproduction, the “schatten” or shadow of the title, as a “Frau” or married woman who will not (clearly distinguished from <I>can</I> not) bear children casts no shadow within her. But is that the only thing that makes us “human,” our ability to reproduce ourselves? What is the deeper meaning of life that makes the gift of life desirable and meaningful? These were very bizarre questions to be asking during or even in the wake of a world war, where death, not life, ruled the day. And in this day and age of automated and extended reproduction where fetuses can be virtually created and destroyed on demand—something unimaginable when this work was conceived—questions that resonate perhaps more deeply now than then. (Dennis Polkow)
At the Civic Opera House, Wacker Drive at Madison, (312)332-2244. This production is now closed.