The 21st century has been kind to Die Frau ohne Schatten ("The Woman without a Shadow"), first produced in 1919 and considered to be Strauss's greatest opera.
The electronic smoke and mirrors of contemporary stagecraft mean that the demands for storms, water and fire which previously made the opera almost unproduceable, can be achieved using video and other technologically-driven devices. In this revival of Jonathan Kent's 2009 production, brilliantly judged staging gives the plot a narrative force that might otherwise have fallen into the crack between two worlds.
A convoluted libretto sees the daughter of spirit king Keikobad married to a mortal Emperor and unable to have a child. This is symbolised by her lack of a shadow. Unless she can acquire one her husband will be turned to stone. To source a shadow, the desperate Empress and her scheming Nurse zip into the human world and bribe the downtrodden wife of a broody dyer to part with hers.
The two separate realms are brilliantly realised. Scene one, the Emperor's kingdom, is viewed through a taut layer of gauze, projected with giant blossoms and swirling mist. Keikobad's messenger descends on a huge golden bird. The Nurse and the Emperor negotiate the bejewelled set like lavishly dressed-up dolls. In scene two Barak, the Dyer's, squalid hovel is a bump back to reality. Into this garage/laundry/ bedsit, with a van in the corner and a dye pit beside the double bed, the Nurse and Empress arrive to tempt the Dyer's Wife with promises of riches, finery and hot young bodies.
With Kent's direction to drive the story, the music can shine. Valery Gergiev's Mariinsky Opera has a special place in the Edinburgh Festival audience's heart and the conductor pulls a lean, muscular performance out of the enormous orchestra the piece requires. The brass section work hard to create the menace needed for the bombastic Emperor and the strings melt in the orchestral passage in act one as Barak and his frumpy missus potter about their meagre home.
Olga Sergeyeva is a brave Dyer's Wife, excelling at the dramatic top end of her register, whipping off her top to reveal a foxy bra and wobbling muffin top in the climax of the second act. She even gets her shadow back in the over-elaborate – but happy – ending.Reuse content