My brother has already given a more than accurate picture of this dreadful production – which joins an ever increasingly line of Mills programmed shows at the Edinburgh International Festival where gimmicky concepts trump narrative cohesion, meaningful characterisation and emotional engagement. All this one grows sadly resigned to. However, Actus Tragicus raises serious questions about Mills' artistic judgements on a new front.
Previously a number of the opera productions selected by Mills have suffered greater or lesser musical flaws (see my previous reviews of the Cologne Opera Capriccio in 2007 and Mahagonny in 2008). This performance was, as far as I can recall, the worst performance musically I have ever heard as part of the International Festival. It renders the term International laughable. The singing, the playing and the relationship between the two was verging on the amateurish. It was embarrassingly bad. Almost without exception, singers laboured through their arias, frequently falling out of time with the conductor, out of key, missing notes, snatching breath and so on and so on. Much of it was simply unpleasant to listen to. Instrumental players were more secure but there were still far too many bum notes (the recorders were particularly culpable) for a professional, let alone a supposedly international performance. Lastly, you had a conductor (Michael Hofstetter) who, leaving aside his complete inability to exert any drama into the playing, or to provide much variation in tempi or dynamics, was seemingly incapable of doing much to rescue the relationship between pit and stage.
Opera, most years a jewel in the McMaster festival programmes has been weak ever since Mills arrived, with the exception of last year's visit by the Mravinsky. There may be mitigating circumstances. First, the virtual collapse of Scottish Opera leaves Mills without a resident company to draw on. Second, the financial situation. If the explanation for such lousy productions as the Cologne Capriccio and Actus Tragicus lies with these two factors then the Festival Council needs to wake up, smell the coffee and work out a coherent strategy for the future. I say again what I said after Capriccio which is that I do not understand why the fundraisers do not start a syndicate to support bringing in or staging through some kind of local company new opera. But the dire musical quality of this performance (and the only slightly better level achieved by the Cologne Opera) forces us to question the artistic judgements of those responsible for bringing them to a supposedly International festival. Whichever factor was most responsible for this debacle, the Festival Council and the Festival Director have some serious thinking to do in advance of next year's programme.
Postscript: My wife, whose knowledge of the world of arts management is much greater than mine, tells me that it is unlikely in fact that anybody in management positions at the Festival would have seen this company before inviting them, and that they would have been going on reputation. If this is the explanation for having the Stuttgart company on the programme, then more probing consideration of how a reputation has been arrived at is required.