The 2013 opera programme is dominated by two returnees. It begins on the opening weekend with a new production of Fidelio from Opera de Lyon who previously visited the Festival with Porgy and Bess in 2010 (which I missed) and in McMaster's last Festival with two superb productions (a Weill double bill and Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa). According to the International Festival's Twitter account, Jonathan Mills apparently claimed at the press release that this production was one of the 2013 Festival's boldest offerings. This seems a remarkable claim when a) Fidelios are two a penny and b) there is an awful lot of other programming in this year's Festival which given what I regard as the general conservatism of Edinburgh audiences is remarkably bold. I can only assume that the basis for Mills' claim is the production's concept. Apparently director Gary Hill is to set the opera “on board the doomed spacecraft Aniara as it hurtles towards infinity” (to quote the Programme guide). A little digging suggests that he may be thinking of a poem by the Swedish Nobel laureate Henry Martinson entitled Anaira (I haven't read it). More concerning is the fact that Hill's background seems to be almost entirely in video installations – apart from some kind of loose staging of works by Edgard Varèse he doesn't appear ever to have directed an opera before and I'm afraid the London stages in recent times have been littered with disasters resulting from putting opera into such neophyte arms. The other immediate question raised by the description in the programme book is whether Hill has realised that the opera has a happy ending – presumably the doomed spaceship is going to turn out in fact not to be. The production opens in Lyon towards the end of this month, so more information may then be forthcoming. Kazushi Ono, the company's principle conductor, conducts. He previously conducted the Ravel double bill and Hansel and Gretel at Glyndebourne, but lists no other UK operatic engagements in his biography – I heard good reports of the former. Erika Sunnegardh sings Leonore having previously sung it in Frankfurt and the Met. She and most of the other singers will all be new to me.
The second returnee is Barry Kosky, a Mills regular. This time he brings a double bill of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Apart from the fact that I have some doubts as to whether these two works will pair well together, I can't say that I am thrilled by the prospect of more Kosky who has not impressed me on previous outings (here's what I said about his ghastly Poppea in Mills's first year). The productions were originally staged in Frankfurt in 2010 and reviews for both plus a selection of images may be found here and here. Regrettably none of them are in English. Surprise is always possible, but I'm not optimistic.
Finally, on the staged opera front, we have Berg's Lulu reimagined by Olga Neuwirth. The best thing about this is that it marks the Edinburgh debut of John Fulljames and The Opera Group. I am an enormous fan of Fulljames's work – I think he is one of the most promising British opera directors currently working. His staging of Jonathan Dove's The Enchanted Pig (read our review here) was so outstanding that we gave it two of the coveted Where's Runnicles Awards. I also much enjoyed the same company's staging of Street Scene, and Fulljames's staging with Opera North of Janacek's From the House of the Dead. Video designer Finn Ross has also been involved in a number of other recent productions which have impressed me including Complicite's Master and Margarita, ENO's The Death of Klinghoffer and Glyndebourne's Rinaldo. The singers are an intriguing blend of veterans of opera (Donald Maxwell) and jazz (Jacqui Dankworth) and the young American opera singer Angel Blue who will be new to me. Unfortunately there is a but to all of this, which is that reports of Neuwirth's work itself are less than encouraging. Andrew Clements in this Guardian review was obviously seeing a different production but is not favourably disposed to the music. The New York Times is slightly kinder here as is Shirley Apthorpe in the Financial Times here but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that this is yet another misguided attempt to reinvent a classic that was far better left as it was, and to fear that this will not allow Fulljames's talents to be seen to best advantage.
Finally, and somewhat oddly listed as Contemporary Music/Opera is a screening of Jean Cocteau's 1946 film La Belle et la Bete accompanied by the Philip Glass Ensemble playing his own live score. Now I haven't actually ever seen the original film (I know, I know) but it doesn't appear to be operatic (at least judging by the entry on IMDB) and Auric's original score, according to the details of the Marco Polo recording involves chorus but no soloists. However, leaving aside questions of classification, I have had several experiences of live music accompaniment to classic films (highlights being the visits of Blue Grassy Knoll to the Fringe with Buster Keaton), so this will probably be worth catching if you can (difficult on the very strongly programmed opening weekend).
One final note on the opera programme is the absence for the first time in my memory of any concert opera which has been such a regular, and nearly always welcome, feature of the Usher Hall programme. This does make the Opera programme overall thinner than in many years, and there is also a particular missed opportunity this time. It's great to see Christoph Rousset and Les Talons Lyriques on the programme (I think this may be their Festival debut) but their Ariodante at the Barbican lives on as one of my great opera experiences of recent years – it's a pity they aren't bringing one of their concert operas to Edinburgh.
As last year, the Drama programme is again very extensive, and is dominated by returnees. Top of the list (and another highlight of the opening weekend) is the return of Wu Hsing-Kuo and Contemporary Legend Theatre. Hsing-Kuo wowed me in 2011 with his extraordinary 1-man exploration of King Lear (read what I said here). This time they bring the world premiere of a new adaptation of Kafka's Metamorphosis. I have to admit that the original is not a favourite of mine, but Hsing-Kuo is such a remarkable performer that I consider this unmissable.
Also returning is Barry McGovern in more Beckett, this time an adaptation of excerpts from Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable entitled I'll Go On. His solo adaptation of Watt was a highlight of last year's festival (read my review here) - so once again this is strongly recommended. A review is available from the New York Times but it lies behind their paywall. A freely accessible review is available here. It forms part of a Beckett festival within a festival. The Gate Theatre, Dublin also presents Beckett's television play Eh Joe in a production featuring the voice of Penelope Wilton and directed by Atom Egoyan (dating from 2006 and reviewed by The Guardian here and by The New York Times here). Previous performances of this have involved Michael Gambon and Liam Neeson, one hopes someone similarly starry will take the stage in Edinburgh. The Gate also offer an adaptation of Beckett's novel First Love (previously performed on Broadway by Ralph Fiennes and again very favourably reviewed here). These are complemented by productions of Pan Pan Theatre of Beckett's radio plays Embers and All That Fall (the latter sounds just a little odd see here and here). These kind of opportunities to immerse yourself in the work of one composer or writer have been a regular feature of the Festival over the years and have frequently provided memorable experiences.
A third returnee is Grid Iron Theatre Company with Leaving Planet Earth. They were last at the International Festival back in 2002 with Variety which I did not see but which received as I recall somewhat lukewarm reviews. Since then though they have been regulars on the Fringe with a series of highly successful shows. Up to now, however, the closest I've come to seeing one of their shows was being asked at one point during my PhD by my beloved supervisor whether I would vacate my flat so they could stage a show there (I decided against this). I'm not really a fan of immersive theatre (I've booked for the Punchdrunk thing at Aldeburgh this year and am if I'm entirely honest rather dreading it). However, the description of this was such that I felt I couldn't miss it, and my esteemed brother is keeping me company. The show also follows in another International Festival tradition of escaping its traditional venues (this time starting at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre and finishing up at the Edinburgh International Climbing Arena at Ratho – as I don't climb either I have slight misgivings about this too!) Altogether certainly likely to be a unique experience.
Next on the returnees front we have The Wooster Group who featured in Mills' first festival in 2007 with La Didone. That show which I saw but did not review was interesting but didn't blow me away. This time they bring a version of Hamlet making use of the film of Richard Burton's 1964 performance. As I have had occasion to say before the list of reimagined Shakespeares at the International Festival which have been complete disasters is a very long one. I actually doubt this will be added to the list because my sense is the Wooster Group are likely to be interesting, the big question is will they engage my heart? The run is accompanied by four film showings of other Wooster Group performances – again an opportunity for further immersion.
Teatrocinema were first at the Festival in 2010 with an adaptation of Baricco's Without Blood. The mingling of live action and cinema was rather disappointing as we reported at the time. This time they have adapted a novel by Regis Jauffret unknown to me. On the basis of my experience in 2010 I would suggest waiting for the reviews on this one.
Also at the Festival in 2010 (though I missed her on that occasion) was Meredith Monk with Songs of Ascension. She returns this time with what is described as “her latest music-theatre work” On Behalf of Nature. This has clearly beguiled some (see this LA Times review) but I must admit whenever I see a statement like “you don't know what the words are” my heart sinks a little. But then I seem to be often the odd one out in thinking that text continues to matter rather a lot in live performance. More about Monk's approach can be gleaned from this article. I have bought a ticket for this because I'll go and hear anything once, but I am a little sceptical.
Finally we have the Beijing People's Art Theatre with a version of Coriolanus. I cannot find any reviews of this at all so all I can only report what is in the Festival brochure: that it features two of China's leading heavy metal bands (I have heard of neither of them but am not of course in their target market) and proposes to “re-interpret Shakespeare's tragedy for the 21st century (see my many previous remarks about reinterpreted Shakespeare at the EIF). I imagine this will be unforgettable but it seems to me more than likely to be so for all the wrong reasons.
Altogether it is another abundant year for Drama at the Festival, but I do have exactly the same criticism as I made last year. This is that again Jonathan Mills has decided against one world class straight production of a major work. The one thing with his Drama programmes is that he has not, to my mind, managed to find a substitute for Peter Stein, and it appears in the last couple of years that he has decided not to go in that direction. I continue to feel this is a bit of a shame. Overall though, this is a varied and exciting Festival in both these genres. Roll on August!