Synopsis for Die Frau ohne Schatten
Out hunting with his favorite falcon, the Emperor of the Southeastern Islands captured a gazelle; she turned into a woman whom he married. Daughter of Keikobad, King of the spirits, she is a woman without a shadow—that is, unable to bear children. According to Keikobad’s decree, unless the Empress gains a shadow before the end of the twelfth moon she will be reclaimed by her father and the Emperor turned to stone.
Scene 1—On a terrace overlooking the Emperor’s palace, the Empress’ Nurse, adept in Black magic, hears the Messenger of Keikobad warn that the Empress, still barren, has only three days left. As he disappears, the love-struck Emperor enters on his way to the hunt in hopes of recapturing the Falcon, whom he wounded for attacking the gazelle; he leaves his wife in the Nurse’s care. The Empress now appears, lamenting the loss of a talisman that enabled her to change her form. When the voice of the Falcon is heard reiterating the doom that threatens her husband, she implores the Nurse to help her find a shadow. They descend to the human world.
Scene 2—In the humble house of Barak the Dyer, his three brothers fight among themselves and threaten the Dyer’s wife as she curses them; the men leave when Barak enters. The kindly Dyer longs for children, but his wife is reluctant, wary of motherhood without having experienced it. As Barak goes out, the Nurse and Empress enter the hut in disguise, intent on capturing a shadow for the Empress. Gradually, the Dyer’s Wife weakens before the Nurse’s visions of luxury, agreeing to deny Barak during the three days that the visitors will act as her servants. As the Nurse and Empress disappear, the Dyer’s Wife hears the voices of Unborn Children bewail their fate. Barak returns to find the marriage bed divided; outside, watchmen sing the praises of conjugal love.
Scene 1—In Barak’s dwelling, the Empress, now a servant, helps the Dyer as he leaves for work. The Nurse conjures up the apparition of a young man to whom the Dyer’s Wife is attracted; the Empress, however, is troubled. The vision fades as Barak returns with his hungry brothers and a group of beggar children.
Scene 2—At the Emperor’s hunting lodge, the Emperor seeks his wife, who has vowed to remain in three days’ seclusion; he is filled with anger, then has misgivings when he sees her and the Nurse entering the lodge.
Scene 3—Back at the Dyer’s house, Barak succumbs to a potion as the Nurse again causes the young man to appear to the Dyer’s Wife. Increasingly anxious, she rouses her husband.
Scene 4—In the hunting lodge, the sleeping Empress is in torment at her sin against Barak; as the Falcon repeats that she is childless, she seems to see the Emperor knock at and enter a great temple door. The Empress, awakening, is torn between love for her husband and sorrow for Barak.
Scene 5—Darkness overcomes Barak’s hut. As the Dyer and his family express fear, the Empress begins to realize her budding humanity; the Dyer’s Wife, on the other hand, resolves to relinquish her shadow. In the flickering fire, she fails to cast a shadow, enraging Barak. A sword materializes in Barak’s hand, but before he can strike her, he and his wife—who suddenly sees the value of her shadow, which she has not lost irrevocably—are torn apart by unseen forces.
Scene 1—In an underground grotto in the realm of Keikobad, the Dyer’s Wife, who has become separated from her husband, tries to still the voices of the Unborn Children, crying that she has never ceased to love Barak. He, in turn, is filled with remorse for his murderous thoughts. A voice urges the couple to ascend a winding staircase.
Scene 2—On rocky steps leading to the great temple door, the Messenger of Keikobad awaits a boat that brings the Empress to the temple in search of her husband. The Messenger of Keikobad emerges from the temple and dooms the Nurse to wander in the mortal world.
Scene 3—As the cries of Barak and his wife are heard in the distance, the Empress, prostrate before the fountain of life, sees the Emperor turned to stone. Though in an agony to save him, she will not do so at the expense of Barak’s happiness—whereupon she casts a shadow and the Emperor is freed.
Scene 4—The Emperor and Empress, Barak and his wife (who has regained her shadow), sing of their humanity, to the praises of the Unborn.