A closer look at how some performances at the International Festival are rejuvenating old folklore and legends.
Stravinsky’s The Firebird
Anyone else still get nightmares about the firebird in Disney's Fantasia? Just us? Well anyway, you might be interested to hear that that fiery onslaught was based on the firebird from multiple folk tales, which also inspired Stravinsky’s breakthrough ballet. The firebird is a magical glowing bird whose feathers can light up a room if plucked, and is usually the object of a perilous life-changing quest. Stravinsky’s firebird was “slightly” more benevolent than Disney’s, and both versions turn up in different stories – at once beautiful and dangerous, it can bring doom or good fortune to its captor. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will perform Stravinsky’s The Firebird on 24 August.
Akram Khan’s wartime Prometheus
Prometheus, according to Greek mythology, was the original rebel. A trickster, a thief, and for some a hero – he carried out the ultimate heist right at the beginning of humanity. His crime? Stealing fire from the gods and giving it to mortals. Zeus, in his fury, punished Prometheus by chaining him up and having an eagle peck at his liver daily, but it was too late to halt the progress that humanity gained from being able to cook food, create art, and make new tools. In Akram Khan’s interpretation in XENOS, he asks whether Prometheus’s gift to humankind was a good idea after all – for all it has helped us, it also gave us literal firepower, the machinery that caused the Second World War’s devastation. Khan performs his final full-length solo piece on 16-18 August.
Englebert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel
We have to thank Englebert Humperdinck's sister for inspiring this opera, which was originally only meant to be performed by her children in their home at Christmas. She wrote the libretto, which together with the four songs that she asked her brother to compose became the basis for Humperdinck’s hit, Hansel and Gretel. In his version of the folk tale, some of the darkness is lifted. The children are not sent away by their parents but simply get lost picking strawberries in the forest, and new friendly characters like the Sandman and the Dew Fairy act as guardians in a story brimming with childhood nostalgia. Hansel and Gretel comes to the International Festival this year on 15 August.
When Rossini agreed to compose an opera based on Cinderella, he did so on one condition – La Cenerentola would be totally void of magic. The result is a fairy tale with no fairies, a ball with no curfew, and a Cinderella with no glass slipper. In the fairy godmother’s stead is Alidoro (whose name translates to “wings of gold”), the prince’s tutor. This isn’t the first time that Cinderella’s magic helper has changed – in Aschenputtel, a German version of the rags-to-riches tale, she is helped by a magic wishing tree – but Alidoro’s down-to-earth occupation says a lot about the social attitudes that Rossini was working with. He is a philosopher, not a magician, a thinking man who values reason and logic. He decides to help Cinderella because she is kind to him when he is disguised in rags, not just because she is beautiful. In an age that increasingly rejected the supernatural in favour of science, Rossini’s La Cenerentola espouses human decency and wit, as opposed to magic and looks, triumphing over class divides. This production of La Cenerentola comes to the International Festival on 15 August.
While not based on any specific fairy tale, Hocus Pocus encourages its young audience to suspend disbelief through the fantastical story it tells and with its staging, which makes its performers look as if they might actually be defying physics. Two strip lights plunge half of their bodies into darkness but also create a small lit window into the magical setting being conjured. The two characters can soar or swim through this pool of light, navigating dream-like watery and airborne worlds that harbour mysterious, sometimes frightening, creatures. This Philippe Saire Company production is on at the International Festival 10-12 August.
Wagner's youth who learnt what fear was
The third installment to Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Siegfried, may have been based on the Nordic sagas of Viking mythology, but in a letter to his fellow composer, Uhlig, Wagner also cited the Brothers Grimm's The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was as one of his key influences. Siegfried, Wagner wrote, and the youth are the same character. They both set out to learn fear by confronting terrifying obstacles – for Siegfried, it is the dragon Fafner, while the youth chooses to face a castle inhabited by walking beds, human skulls, and dead men’s legs – but neither is changed by completing his quest. More frightening than dragons and haunted castles, it turns out, are the women that they fall in love with – somewhat more understandable in the youth’s case, whose wife “teaches him to shiver” by chucking a bucket of water on him as he sleeps. Siegfried comes to the International Edinburgh on 8 August.
Fairy tale endings
Every quest must end with a journey home, and for many fairy tale and mythic heroes that means returning to the castle from which they departed at their story's start. The International Festival will also conclude on 27 August at Edinburgh Castle, which the Virgin Money Fireworks Concert in partnership with the City of Edinburgh transforms into a glittering palace worthy of a heroic ending. Among the orchestral pieces to be played by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is an extract from Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt, based on a Norwegian fairy tale in which the titular character rescues three dairy-maids from a vicious troll.