Last year's EIF opera programme was, as I think I blogged at the time, the most exciting for me since Mills took up the reins. However, Rossini and Strauss are two of my favourite operatic composers so it is possible that I was not an unbiased witness. This year's offerings are not nearly so much to my personal taste, but with one notable exception you can't fault Mills's bookings in themselves.
The banner show is a new production of Janacek's The Makropulos Case marking a return to the Festival for Opera North (I think this is the first time they've been back since Schumann's Genoveva which is now a frightening number of years ago, but I may be wrong on this). Living as I do in Lincoln these days I've had occasion to see rather more of Opera North than previously and for my money they are currently the strongest of the three non-London majors. Among excellent work of theirs I've been able to see have been rarely performed musicals by Gershwin and Bellini's Norma. Of equal note is that they have recent Janacek pedigree under Richard Farnes's musical direction. I sadly missed their Broucek but they did a marvellous From the House of the Dead last spring.
The lead role is to be taken by Swedish soprano Yiva Kihlberg of whom I know nothing. The world wide web reveals an eclectic range of roles, many at the Royal Opera, Copenhagen, ranging from Mozart to Wagner. Of the other singers Paul Nilon I heard some years ago as a fine Lurcanio in Ariodante at the Coliseum (and I find examining his bio that he was also in the production of Genoveva already mentioned).
The production is being directed by Tom Cairns. Google unhelpfully points me only to a site that lists productions up to the early 90s – although this did also reveal that he was the man behind the Opera North production of Tippett's King Priam of which I have fond memories. I haven't been able to spot anything more recent that I've seen but the omens would certainly seem hopefully. He is joined by the familiar Hildegard Bechtler as set designer and the less familiar, to me, but possessing a long opera resume Bruno Poet as lighting designer.
The second major staging is of Charpentier's David et Jonathas which comes from the Aix-en-Provence Festival. I am emphatically not an early music man generally, but William Christie and Les Arts Florissants have impeccable credentials in this repertoire, and it is good to see Neal Davies's name among the cast. It is to be directed by Andreas Homoki who has a long list of operatic productions mostly in German houses to his credit but whose work I cannot recall ever having previously seen. Staging wise then this could probably go either way, but as a rarity under these forces it should be musically well worth catching.
Finally as far as staged opera is concerned we have four new works from Scottish Opera: James MacMillan's Clemency, Craig Armstrong's The Lady from the Sea and a double bill of Huw Watkins's In a Locked Room and Stuart MacRae's Ghost Patrol (which is going on to the Linbury in London). This is a brave move by Mills given the notorious conservatism of Edinburgh audiences when it comes to anything even vaguely musically new. Of the four I shall be particularly interested to see what the composer of the score of Moulin Rouge! comes up with in the opera line. I previously saw Stuart MacRae's first opera, The Assassin Tree at the Festival and was not wowed, but I don't think the work was helped by a poor staging. My brother has sung the praises of a number of MacMillan's works, but I have to say the only piece of his I've heard live was a concert performance at the Festival of Parthenogenesis which did nothing for me, that this is being directed by Katie Mitchell is also not specially encouraging. There is as yet no news on casting.
The opera side of the programme is completed by two concert performances. The first, of Purcell's King Arthur, is a really exciting prospect. Soloists include Jonathan Lemalu and Sophie Bevan who was marvellous in the recent ENO Rosenkavalier. Harry Christopher and The Sixteen are leading figures for this repertoire and although I've missed their previous Festival gigs, I've heard high praise from those who attended.
Finally, we have the one piece of programming that strikes me as a mistake. Welsh National Opera are bringing a concert performance of Tristan. This in itself would be fine but they have lined up Ben Heppner to sing the title role. He was singing the part the last time I saw the opera at the Royal Opera House during the second act of which I really doubted whether he would reach the end. Nothing I've read subsequently suggests to me that the voice has recovered sufficiently to be able to bring the part off especially in the Usher Hall where balance in concert opera can be a problem. My advice would strongly be to give this one a miss and wait for the Runnicles/BBCSSO installments later in the year.
I can remember a number of years when there have been loud complaints about the thinness of the drama programme. I can't imagine that anyone will level such a complaint at this year's festival which boasts a total of ten productions (in fact I'm not sure that in 14 years of Festival-going the Theatre line-up has ever been so extensive). At face value it looks a very exciting programme, but as I delved, through the magic of the world wide web, into the character of these various companies I did begin to have a few qualms.
The centre piece is clearly the return to specially constructed spaces at the Royal Highland Centre at Ingleston. Three shows will be staged here – 2008: Macbeth by TR Warszawa (previously seen at the 2008 Festival in 4:48 Psychosis), Meine faire Dame – ein Sprachlabor by Theater Basel and Les Nuafrages du Fol Espoir by Theatre du Soleil. Of these the latter two are the most intriguing.
Theatre de Soleil is forty-five years old and specialises in the production of dramas so epic (Wagner would seem to have nothing on some of their shows) that apparently they are not often seen outside of their Paris base. According to a review in The Guardian this show originally included the actors serving the audience dinner, while according to the festival brochure D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille are among the influences. The full review can be read here. This sounds like a genuinely unique theatrical experience and is my top tip for this year's drama programme.
The second of the three shows appearing at Ingleston, Theater Basel's take on My Fair Lady is obviously of interest to me because of my love of the American musical. In the early years of the Mills reign it seemed as if the Festival might be prepared to venture rather more into this territory (which it has usually left to the Fringe) with concert performances of Bernstein's Candide and Weill's Mahagonny – obviously the latter is more generally classed in the operatic category but it is a bit of a blurred case. These however proved to be it and there has been little else in this line in more recent years. The extent to which Theater Basel's effort will actually link to Lerner and Loewe's masterpiece is doubtful, the programme warns that it is “very loosely” based on My Fair Lady and such reimaginings of the classics have had a tendency at Festivals past to be total disasters. This intriguing piece on director Christoph Marthaler reinforces my feeling that this could go either way. On the one hand it speaks of “heart-warming” productions (an area in which EIF Drama offerings have failed time out of mind and of particular importance to me) but equally talk of “extreme stretching of time” does not fill me with confidence. Nor does Mark Berry's take on Marthaler's often revived production of Wagner's Tristan at Bayreuth. The jury is very much out on this one.
Mills's final offering at Ingleston, 2008: Macbeth, will be another in the long list of reimagined Shakespeare productions the Festival has offered over the years. Again the ones I've seen have not been notably successful. I didn't see the Sarah Kane play which this company brought in 2008 so I can't comment on their style. The opening query of a New York Times review of this show back in 2008 is not hopeful - “What's up with the guy in the rabbit suit?” and nor is Charles Isherwood's larger judgement that the show “is ultimately tedious and uninvolving”. I suspect it will be advisable to wait for the reviews on this one.
There are two other Shakespeare shows in evidence this year. Dmitry Krymov's Laboratory School of Dramatic Art Theatre Production apparently offers us two plays for the price of one with A Midsummer Night's Dream (As You Like It). We are again warned to “expect his take on Shakespeare's most magical of comedies to be unlike any Dream you have seen before” and as I've already noted these kind of things have often come to grief at the Festival. This is having its world premiere at Stratford prior to coming to Edinburgh so again there are no reviews to go on. Google produces a warm Moscow Times review of another of his shows but I have to say that the actual description of what goes on in that show (lines rattled off at unintelligible speed, women stuck in boxes and the dread word deconstruction) does not fill me with confidence.
Finally in the Shakespearean vein, we have another staging of something not originally written to be performed, the poem The Rape of Lucrece. Camile O'Sullivan performs this one woman show which was originally staged by the RSC last year. O'Sullivan has had a varied career embracing appearances with La Clique at the Famous Spiegeltent in the Fringe, as the Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd in Dublin and as a solo cabaret performer in a variety of repertoire. Again this sounds an intriguing prospect.
Also reimagining familiar sources is the Suzuki Company of Toga's Waiting for Orestes: Electra. This will be the company's first visit to the United Kingdom, according to their website, since 1985, although the show has toured to Turin and arguably Edinburgh is arriving to it rather late since it was first staged in 2008. I have for the moment restricted the amount of time I'm coming up to Edinburgh this year, but if I were to stay longer on the opening weekend, this show would be top of my list of things to catch, drawing as it apparently does on both Euripides and Hofmannsthal's Electras and because I have a general fascination for Greek myth inspired work. Some footage of the show can be seen in this link. From this it seems likely to be fairly visually striking but I do wonder how far it will retain an emotional punch.
Also featuring in the opening weekend is the Gate Theatre's production of Samuel Beckett's Watt. The company were last at the Festival with three Brian Friel plays in 2009, again shows I missed. This show is a one man adaptation of Beckett's second novel, performed by Barry McGovern, which has already toured successfully in the USA. Beckett is not to everyone's tastes but this company has an unsurprisingly long history with his work, and this one sounds well worth catching.
The end of the first week brings another Mills returnee, the Radu Stanca National Theatre of Sibiu, Romania, and director Silviu Purcarete who bring a version of Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Their previous visit in 2009 was the last time the Festival ventured to Ingleston, with an epic production of Faust which I did not see. Again re-reading certain of the reviews slightly makes my heart sink as it sounds rather as if spectacle trumped emotional engagement in that show. Swift's novel certainly presents a lot of potential visual challenges for a stage director so it could well play to Purcarete and the company's strengths. A google search does not reveal any reviews, so your willingness to book early will probably depend on whether you think Swift's work can be staged and whether the 2009 Faust appealed to you.
The final piece of reimagination comes on the last weekend from Scottish company Vanishing Point, who turn their attentions to Lewis Carroll in Wonderland. Their mission statement states that they want to tell “dark and beautiful stories” and “take our audiences on adventures into strange, dreamlike landscapes”. This will be my first encounter with their work but there is a lot of potential in the source material, and the mission statement sounds promising. Previous shows have ranged from a site specific work for six audience members at a time performed at the top of a Glasgow tower block (Home Hindrance) to a version of The Beggar's Opera. Of the numerous reimaginings at this year's festival this seems to me to have the potential to be one of the most interesting.
Lastly, we have Teatro Playa with two one act plays Villa+Discurso at the Hub. A search on Google reveals little more to me than is in the Festival brochure, so I can only report what is there printed that the first play explores Pinochet's problematic legacy to Chile, while the second deals with more recent Chilean politics.
As I said at the start of this write up, no one can fault the scale of the Drama programme this year. If you like the more experimental end of modern theatre, the companies that deconstruct and reinvent the classics, this is probably an enormously exciting programme for you. I can't help feeling though that it would have been strengthened by just one good solid world class production of a classic. Of course this line up could produce a series of new classics of the reinvention genre, it could equally produce a whole series of evenings where one comes out baffled as to what on earth the point of it all was. Until August then, the jury is out.