With three performances of Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Richard Strauss's sprawling symbolic fairy tale about a woman without a shadow, being given on three consecutive nights by the Mariinsky Opera, the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) will bestow its belated blessing on a music drama that history declares to be as much a monster as a masterpiece.
Though not all Valery Gergiev’s recent departures from his native repertoire have been successes, here is a work that is the elaborate German equivalent of the magic of Rimsky-Korsakov, a composer close to every Russian conductor’s heart. To stress the international cross-currents of the event, Hugo Von Hofmannsthal’s text will be sung in the original German – presumably by Russians, although the EIF programme supplies no names – and the staging is in the hands of Jonathan Kent (pictured), the English enfant terrible of the recent Glyndebourne production of Don Giovanni.
But whoever sings it, the cast will need maximum stamina for roles which, ever since the Viennese premiere in 1919, have required stars of the calibre of Lotte Lehmann, Richard Mayr, Christa Ludwig, Hildegard Behrens, Julia Varady and Birgit Nilsson to voice them. Reports from St Petersburg have been good. Far from obscuring, in the modern manner, an already complicated opera, Kent’s production is said to have clarified it. But whether this, combined with Gergiev’s musical intensity, will be enough to sustain four hours of Strauss remains to be seen.
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Not everyone who has experienced Die Frau wants to do so twice. My own memories of it at Covent Garden and in Strauss’s native Munich, despite the flair of Sir Georg Solti’s conducting, have left me rather sitting on the fence. The work’s relentless outpouring of words and notes deny it the position in the popular repertoire enjoyed by its predecessor Der Rosenkavalier, which itself at times can seem exhaustingly prolix.
Although the closing scene is a marvel, it failed to convince WH Auden, librettist of Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress, that the score as a whole is anything other than a large unfeeling corpse.
When asked by this critic in 1964 if the Edinburgh Festival would be celebrating the Strauss centenary with a performance of Die Frau or some other major work, Lord Harewood, director at the time, wittily replied that Edinburgh’s form of celebration, like that of most other major festivals, would be to do nothing. Harewood, who died earlier this month, was not a Strauss enthusiast, although in 1965 he filled the gap left by the cancellation of Offenbach’s La Belle Helene with a Munich production of Intermezzo, Strauss’s delectable domestic comedy.
Die Frau, for all its fame, has taken a long time to reach Scotland. In the early years of Scottish Opera, when nothing seemed too difficult or too expensive to stage, it was one of Alexander Gibson’s great ambitions to conduct it, along with Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini and Damnation of Faust and Verdi’s Don Carlos. Today, more than a decade after his death, they remain ignored by a company now intent on other things.
What Gibson saw in Die Frau was what Solti had also seen. Both recognised it as a multi-faceted musical tapestry that triumphed over Hofmannsthal’s words at a time, during the First World War, when Strauss’s faith in the text had begun to falter. Like Capriccio in the 1940s, it was a glorious piece of musical escapism, a sublime blend of The Magic Flute and Parsifal if you were on its wavelength, a mausoleum of high intentions if you were not. With three superb female voices among its requirements, it was, or so Strauss must have hoped, a Rosenkavalier in a different form.
Whether the result was the masterpiece he desired, it was musically a conductor’s dream. In Edinburgh we shall have a chance to assess it afresh.
Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, September 1, 2 and 3. Michael Tumelty is away.