Opera Die Frau Ohne Schatten set for 2011 Edinburgh International Festival

This article is from 2011

Opera Die Frau Ohne Schatten set for 2011 Edinburgh International Festival

Russia's Mariinsky Theatre and Jonathan Kent bring Strauss opera to EIF

Anna Millar looks at the epic journey between worlds promised by Jonathan Kent's and Mariinsky Opera's ambitious staging of Die Frau Ohne Schatten

To say Jonathan Kent's EIF opus is 'a bit' epic is like saying Edinburgh gets 'a bit' busy in August. This summer the Brit director joins forces with Russia's Mariinsky to stage the little-seen Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow). A cast of over 150 men, women and children will perform one of Richard Strauss's most sumptuous scores, while Die Frau's fairytale libretto – penned by long-time Strauss collaborator Hugo von Hofmannsthal – takes the audience on a journey between Earth and the spirit world. A hefty feat, admits Kent, even for a director and company of Kent and Mariinsky's calibre.

'We knew it was going to be an undertaking,' smiles Kent, 'but I like a challenge and this is a wonderful one.' It's not for nothing, he acknowledges, that Die Frau doesn't often grace the boards, so gargantuan is the production in execution and design, requiring a vast cast and an extraordinary orchestra to truly bring the story to life.

Kent – who gained international acclaim as one of the directors of London's Almeida Theatre and later worked with the Mariinsky on Elektra in 2007 – had faith that with dynamo conductor Valery Gergiev at the helm he could use the Mariinsky's scale to drive his artistic vision for the piece. He wasn't wrong. Following the show's outing in Russia, Kultura newspaper referred to it as 'an aesthetic revolution in opera' and 'visual spectacle'.

Die Frau tells of an empress who must acquire a shadow – a symbol of motherhood – or the emperor will be turned to stone. In despair she travels from the spirit world to the world of humans, striking a deal with a dyer's wife, whose shadow she might receive. As the piece reaches its crescendo the two women, whose lives are now entwined forever, must decide who they really are and whether they can live with the lives they have chosen.

'It's a story about the search for identity,' explains Kent. 'Both women are striving to find their identities through relationships with their men, and through relation to the motherhood issue.'

As well as masterminding a way in which to show the symbolism, Kent had to co-ordinate the demanding roles with some intense orchestration.

'With dancers, singers and a children's chorus to direct it was about making a homogenous whole out of the separate pieces,' says Kent. 'It's a vast, sprawling piece and there's no doubt it needed the resources of the Mariinsky. It needed their size and vision to really appreciate the savage, visceral music, which is conducted by Valery Gergiev here like nothing else.

'There were these two worlds: the imagination and the grim reality of the life lived now, so we needed two poles. Because of when it was written [in the early 20th century], you see a lot of Nietzsche in the libretto; there's references too to Jung's concept of the shadow – everything that is repressed, we wanted to capture that.'

Visually, the production requires the characters to move freely between Earth and the spirit world, and Kent called in the experts to help. 'I know the magic that the Mariinksy can create and Jonathan [Kent] has a very filmic approach,' says video and projection designer, Nina Dunn. 'The music is fantastically rich, so it was about integrating the projections to help capture a mood or location or story arc.'

Dunn hopes audiences will be surprised and wooed in equal measure. 'The story has an almost non-operatic, soap opera feel to it, but at the same time it's about the state of the individual and their personal struggles.'

Dunn, like Kent, is keen to keep schtum on the specifics but promises floods, fires and fantastical journeys from one world to the next. 'The music, like the story, is both bombastic and deeply sensitive and small, so it was about using the technology effectively, while still staying true to the story of these women.'

Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, 0131 473 2000, 1–3 Sep, 6pm, £16-£72.

The Woman Without a Shadow - Edinburgh International Festival 2011

Die Frau ohne Schatten

A lush score from Richard Strauss brings to life the homely warmth of librettist and writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal's fairy tale story in this acclaimed production from the Mariinsky Opera in St Petersburg. Part of Edinburgh International Festival.

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