Wednesday 23 March 2011

EIF 2011 – Opera and Theatre Preview, or Jonathan Mills proves me mistaken

Here at Where's Runnicles I have tended to be a little critical of Jonathan Mills's Edinburgh programmes. For me there have been two major issues, the weakness of the opera programme despite some standout performances, and the flimsy nature of several of Mills’s themes (particularly the Artists without Borders one). On both issues the 2011 programme answers my criticisms. There is some fantastic opera, and the theme really stands out in offerings across the various artforms.

The opera programme is one of the most exciting of recent years. Top of the list for me is the opportunity to hear Strauss’s too rarely performed Die Frau ohne Schatten from Gergiev and the Mariinsky Opera. Now there are caveats about this, no information on the cast has been provided, and my impression is that the Mariinsky are not always reliable in non-Russian repertoire. Despite this Gergiev led a pretty good performance of Elektra with the LSO last year, and this opera is so rarely staged that any chance to see it is to be welcomed. I can’t comment on Jonathan Kent’s credentials to direct it as I don’t think I’ve seen any of his work but judging by reviews in the FT and from Opera News an exciting evening is in prospect. Considering the expense and complexity of doing it this is a bold programming choice by Mills and to be commended. One caveat – to stage three performances of a Strauss in a row (and especially this Strauss) is most unusual and I would suspect that the singers must vary from performance to performance – if this is not so it would seem highly advisable to attend the first night.

Of equal excitement for me, given my by now well known Rossini obsession, is the chance to see a staged production of Semiramide. Singers, conductor and director are all unknown to me, but again this strikes me as a bold and inventive piece of programming from Mills. I cannot recall a previous production of this opera in the UK in all the time I have been a regular opera-goer.

The third staged opera is in a different category once again, and speaks to the way that Mills’s theme informs every strand of this year’s programme. The Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe bring a Chinese interpretation of Hamlet. I have no idea what this might be like, but one of the things a Festival should do is expose its audience to the unfamiliar. An intriguing prospect.

For concert opera, Mills offers us a further two shows. Massenet seems to be in vogue at the moment, with two of his works about to grace the Covent Garden stage. I heard Andrew Davis conduct Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in Chicago last autumn with Erin Wall I think as Titania and it was slightly disappointing. On the other hand the RSNO are very strong in French repertoire at present, and Erin Wall was stunning in Mahler 8 last year. Again this is an opportunity to hear a rare piece live, since we usually only get the Meditation and may well be worth an experimental trip – though I might hold off and see what my views on Massenet are after the Royal Opera Cendrillon.

Finally in the opera category we have another rarity in the form of Haydn’s Orlando paladino. The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and Rene Jacobs should be naturally suited to this repertoire. As a fan of other parts of Haydn’s output I have long wanted to hear one of his operas. Once again this is an unusual choice by Mills and deserves commendation.

The Theatre programme also looks exciting but is much more difficult for me to comment on. My top choice would be the staging of Murakami’s wonderful The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I loved the novel (but of course I did say that about Alessandro Baricco’s Without Blood and we all know how that turned out – and if you’ve forgotten you can read about it here). A version of this was premiered at the Under the Radar festival in New York last year but Google has not so far revealed any reviews to me. The show looks to be another multimedia extravaganza and it is very easy for this to go wrong (for example last year’s Sin Sangre or ENO’s recent Lucrezia Borgia) but it can also work magic. Which category this will fall into remains to be seen, but the source material gives it a good chance.

Next there comes Tim Supple’s re-imagination of One Thousand and One Nights, a six hour theatrical epic which is causing me my main programming headache. Supple it turns out was responsible for the hit Indian Midsummer Night’s Dream which appeared in London in 2008. Again the source material is rich, and the pedigree encouraging, and this, like the Murakami show is an opportunity for Edinburgh audiences to see a major work in its European premiere. The prospects are exciting.

The other two productions are an indication of the opportunities for new experiences opened up by Mills’s interpretation of this year’s theme. Both are of classic and oft-staged Shakespeare plays – The Tempest and King Lear – but reimagined by two Far Eastern companies, the Mokwha Repertory Company and Contemporary Legend Theatre. Both look potentially intriguing, but if forced to choose I think I would go for the experience of a one-man King Lear from Wu Hsing-Kuo.

All these theatrical productions, with the possible exception of Supple’s 1001 Nights, are somewhat unknown quantities for Edinburgh audiences, although I seem to remember McMaster doing a weekend of traditional Korean theatre some years back. Whether they will work or not is difficult to anticipate, but it seems to me with these shows Mills is doing what the Festival should do and exposing audiences to theatrical experiences that they might otherwise never see.

Criticism has already been levelled at Mills by some theatre critics to the effect that four productions is too few. I don't complain about this since I was the first person to complain when 2007 included a mere two staged operas. All I will say is that it is clearly difficult for lovers of particular genres to be satisfied every year (I promise to try and remember I said this next time I feel the urge to complain about the opera provision) and given that theatre lovers have had several rich years from Mills it is only fair that we opera lovers have a good year in turn. Moreover, the strength of the theme seems to me to mitigate complaints about particular artforms losing out.

To me then, this opera and theatre programme is a bold and exciting one. On paper there is every chance of 2011 proving a bumper year.

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