Saturday 11 August 2007

Welcome New Driver, or Opening Concert EIF 2007

And so it begins…there is a hole in your mind…Ah no, sorry, different sinister plot altogether. Back to reality…

Friday night saw the long awaited opening of Jonathan Mills’ first Edinburgh International Festival. While I have been uneasy about some of his other innovations (particularly the early music invasion) I was delighted that musical theatre (Bernstein’s Candide) was making its way into the Festival programme. Yet, something of what Mills may have to contend with was illustrated in Conrad Wilson’s preview in The Scotsman which asserted gloomily that the wisdom of opening the Festival with such a piece had yet to be proved. I await Wilson’s review with interest since, for me, the performance was a triumph.

The reasons for that can be steadily ticked off. Mills, or Robert Spano had lined up an excellent team of soloists who not only could sing their parts, but also injected just the right level of silliness into the proceedings. The amount of movement and interaction among the principals successfully created a sense of drama, continuing a welcome development in concert opera at Edinburgh which there were signs of in Elektra and Meistersinger last year. They brought out with sparkle this libretto filled with wit (my particular favourite being Cunegonde’s evocation of her breasts “my memorable mammaries like Alpine peaks”). The stand outs among the soloists were Laura Aiken and Matthew Polenzani as the young lovers, and Roland Wood as her snobbish brother, not forgetting Thomas Allen who tripped his way lightly through Pangloss’s patter, and delivered the spoken narration in wonderful deadpan style. Before leaving the singers one must also mention the supporting performers from the RSAMD. Reinforcements have come from them before for events like this, but I cannot remember a previous occasion when all sang so well, infused their parts with such a good sense of character and, last but certainly not least, had excellent diction.

Next, you had superb playing from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the best singing I have heard in a long time from the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. Whether they have been weeded out a bit by the new broom, or whether Spano has found the magic touch that enables an acceptable level of sound and precision to be got from them, I do not know, but either way their performance was impressive.

Finally, there was Spano himself. The main danger with musicals being done by classical forces in my experience is that the whole exercise can become too reverential – tempi slow down, the sound may be sumptuous, but it drags. Spano created the opposite effect, lively, bouncing, exciting all the way through, one could see heads nodding in time, and fingers bouncing away on knees. (There was the odd exception to this, notably the lady on my right who looked thoroughly bored – you can always tell, they develop a sudden fascination with the biographies of the performers in the back of the programme. Why such people stay for second halves must remain a mystery). Yet, he also drew some marvellous sweeping lingering climaxes at the right moments – particularly in the great moving chorale “Make Our Garden Grow” with which the musical concludes. Finally, although he was a dynamic presence on the podium – he was not of the arrogant maestro school. Taking the curtain call he was remarkably unassuming, and having him sing in one line as croupier at the casino was a lovely touch – another indication of the playful quality of the performance.

This whole evening augers well for the new regime, as did Mills’ nice touch of getting the massed chorus and orchestra to open proceedings with a quick chorus of Happy Birthday Edinburgh Festival (though the Festival Director could do with a few pointers on delivery of speeches). Let us hope that Mr Salmond’s dreams of a new Scotland include the granting of sufficient funds to see a similar triumph 60 years from now.

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