An opera that ends with two couples singing a paean to fertility and marital harmony must be either quietly inspiring or insufferably bourgeois. The verdict on Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow) usually hangs in the balance until that final scene, when a glowing transcendence should bathe the stage – but too often doesn’t.
In the Mariinsky Theatre production from St Petersburg, which visited the Edinburgh International Festival at the weekend, Strauss’s hymn to harmony worked its magic. His most ambitious opera, conceived as an allegory of the trials of life, came across as profoundly touching, vindicating the long-windedness and wooliness of a drama that the composer and his lofty-minded librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, intended to be simple.
It is 10 years since Die Frau ohne Schatten was last staged in the UK, and, until Thursday, it had never been performed in Scotland. Requiring a massive cast and orchestra, it is not an obvious candidate for touring, but the Mariinsky loves a challenge and the opera’s shafts of orientalism did strike a chord with this year’s “east meets west” festival theme.
The strength of Jonathan Kent’s production, designed by Paul Brown and Tim Mitchell, lies in its refusal to complicate a scenario that is already overloaded with symbolism. Kent tells the story clearly and simply, illustrating it with stage pictures that mirror the shifting sequence of atmosphere and place – mysterious enough to hint at the allegorical significance of Emperor and Empress, real enough to depict the modern-day domestic grunge of Barak’s world. Kent’s biggest coup is the use of film, poetic and perfectly integrated, to evoke the spirit world and its power to engulf everyone and everything.
The star of the performance was the Mariinsky orchestra, which responded to Valery Gergiev’s conducting with characteristic intensity and a wonderfully burnished sound. The strongest singing and best German diction came from Olga Sergeyeva, a sexy, sassy Dyer’s Wife, and Edem Umerov’s dignified Barak. But this was an ensemble achievement, and a fitting climax to the 2011 festival.