Wednesday 24 April 2013

The Edinburgh International Festival's new director

Just over six years ago, on Friday 30th March 2007 to be exact, we launched this blog. In large part, to talk about the first Edinburgh International Festival programmed by Jonathan Mills. I mention this because yesterday the festival announced his successor, Fergus Linehan. This came as a slight surprise. Although Mills is due to complete both the 2013 and 2014 festivals, last October the search for his successor was announced, with a view to them being in place as director designate from this summer, so I hadn't expected the news quite yet.

This is a positive development. Mills' appointment began less than a year before his first festival and given how long in advance classical and opera artists must be booked, the lack of an early start was an avoidable handicap. There are, however, some similarities between Linehan's appointment and that of Mills. Mills was previously director of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, whereas Linehan ran the Sydney Festival from 2004 to 2009, where he achieved a significant growth in turnover through increased ticket sales and sponsorship (perhaps he will look at some of the festival's pricing issues). Certainly their Instagram feed is always full of fun things (though that particular image came several years after his tenure). A tweeter who responded to my request for information was very positive about his tenure. That said, this slideshow from 2009 calls to mind the Fringe far more than the International. Prior to Sydney he directed the Dublin Theatre Festival.

Indeed, he seems to have a very strong theatre background, which will come as excellent news to those who most value the theatre and dance pillars of the festival programme. And, it could be argued, that following two more musical directors we are due someone from that area again. Frank Dunlop (1984-1991) was the last festival director to come from a theatre background.

Saturday 13 April 2013

ENO's Sunken Garden, or, Proving that Michael van der Aa is not a Triple Threat

For the last few years English National Opera has escaped the Coliseum once a year for something smaller scale and generally more experimental. Because these tend to be short runs at an academically inconvenient time of year this is the first of these escapes that I've managed to catch. On the whole I rather wish I hadn't, though I can't say I wasn't warned.

Sunken Garden is advertised as a film opera. The programme notes go to great lengths to insist that the art forms are organically linked together, or as the composer, director and film-maker is quoted as saying “3D would be locked into the DNA of the libretto.” Sitting through it this was not my experience. In the first part the musical sections don't feel well connected to the films and in the second the Garden's visualisation in 3D could be dispensed with at no loss to anybody. The only person who can be blamed for this, with the exception of the libretto to which we'll come, is Michael van der Aa. Van der Aa apparently labours under the delusion that he is some new kind of operatic triple threat – equally talented as composer, director and film-maker. In fairness he is undeniably passable at all three, but on the basis of this show in none of them is he of a quality to make one want to rush to see/hear more of his work.

He is not, it has to be said, helped by David Mitchell's libretto which commits three cardinal sins. First of all it failed to create characters which engaged my emotions. Secondly, it engages in tedious moralising about needing to live every moment despite all the awful things that occur – as I've remarked in other contexts this kind of messaging only really works if connected to a character for whom one really cares. Thirdly, it leaves so many plot points unexplained as to have one gnawing limbs off in frustration. To give just a few instances: What is the Garden doing there in the first place? How come Dr Marinus has the power to destroy it? And why is Tobias's only means of escape to jump through the pond of water (which explodes so we can be reminded how clever using 3D film is) into the body of Zenna Briggs thereby undergoing a bizarre sex change? I failed to grasp any of this by listening to the piece and the two page plot summary in the programme is not much help either.