Jonathan Mills turns out to have a real knack of proving his critics (or at least this one of them) wrong. Last year (as regular readers may recall) did not prove a happy one for Opera or Theatre, mainly thanks to the kiss of death theme of art and technology. I was already mentally planning a shorter visit this summer, and preparing some choice words of advice for Mills's successor, and lo and behold, his final programme proves to be one of his most interesting.
The clear highlight of the opera programme, and indeed one of the highlights of the Festival as a whole, is the return of the Mariinsky Opera in three performances (part of the strongly programmed final weekend) of Berlioz's masterpiece Les Troyens. I was surprised to see on my twitter feed today quite such a vehemently negative reaction to the prospect of Gergiev's Berlioz. Now, I concede that I haven't heard him perform anything by the composer, but past experience has taught me that I can be surprised by Gergiev. I had doubts in advance of his 2011 Festival Die Frau ohne Schatten and it proved to be one of the most thrilling operatic evenings I've experienced, I similarly doubted whether I would like his Brahms at the 2012 Festival, and again I was surprised (read my brother's review here). Gergiev's other operatic appearances at the Festival in recent years have including several other stunners besides Die Frau so I am overall optimistic about this one. As with Die Frau there are two casts. The Thurs/Sat cast are mostly the same as those who performed this work over two evenings with Gergiev in New York in 2010 (well received here, here and here), I think they will all be new to me. The production by Yannis Kokkos dates from Paris in 2003 and is available on DVD. Some sense of the production's approach can be gleaned here. Will these performances equal the wonderful concert performances from Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra back in 2001? Time alone will tell.
The second of this year's staged operas is equally promising, as the Festival extends its welcome collaboration with Aldeburgh Music. Inaugurated last year, the collaboration brought some fine contemporary concerts to Festival 2013 (here's what we said about them). Aldeburgh Music has a very fine track record in opera production including most recently the Knussen Double Bill and the unforgettable Grimes on the Beach. This year's opera, premiering at Aldeburgh in June (where I shall be seeing it) and then travelling to Edinburgh is Britten's Owen Wingrave. It's not in quite the same category as those just mentioned, but it is still an interesting piece and the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War One is an appropriate time to revive it (even if some of us are feeling a little Brittened out after last year's celebrations). The cast includes some major singers (Susan Bullock as Miss Wingrave is luxury casting) and quite a number who will be new to me including Ross Ramgobin in the title role (I was slightly astonished to be reminded that I was lucky enough to hear Jacques Imbrailo in the role at the Royal Opera). Mark Wigglesworth conducts (interesting to those of us who have been wearily following the travails of ENO where he succeeds Edward Gardner as musical director from September 2015) – I have heard him twice before – very successful in Janacek, less so in Wagner. I have some slight reservations about Neil Bartlett, whose staging of Britten's Canticles in the Linbury last year left me unconvinced, but then those works weren't meant to be staged. You can now read my thoughts on the Aldeburgh performance here.
Among the notable issues with last year's opera programme was the decision not to include any concert opera. Frankly, the Festival can't sustain this segment of the programme without it, and it is therefore a relief to see it return for 2014. As with all three of Mills's operas this year, it is an interesting choice - Rossini's last opera Guillaume Tell. It is also the latest proof that you wait years to hear a work and then suddenly it's everywhere. I have already heard it in concert twice, from the Chelsea Opera Group in 2010 and at the Proms in 2011, and the Royal Opera's production is reportedly slated for a revival at some point in the next couple of years. John Osborn who really impressed me in the latter performance reprises the role of Arnold in Edinburgh. The other singers, and, I think, conductor Gianandrea Noseda will all be new to me. Not everyone loves Rossini, and not everyone loves this Rossini in particular. I do. I also think it's a really fascinating piece in terms of the way the form was developing towards the end of his career. The performance in Edinburgh follows staged performances in Turin directed by Graham Vick - what a pity Mills couldn't get the Italians to fund the whole thing for Edinburgh, and it is also true that not all the same singers seem to be coming for this repeat but it is still a fascinating opportunity for Edinburgh audiences to hear this comparatively rare work.
There remains (as has been the case for every single one of Mills's Festivals) a major, glaring omission from the opera programme. That is the failure, yet again, to ask either Donald Runnicles or Robin Ticciati to do any concert opera. If that isn't a dreadful waste of two of the Scottish classical music scene's finest talents, I don't know what is. Let us hope Fergus Linehan will reverse this policy next year.
The first really good news about this year's theatre programme is that there is no experimental Shakespeare, of which there has been a glut in recent Festivals. The second really good news is that Mills has placed at the centre a modern history cycle from the National Theatre of Scotland. Their return to the Festival was actually announced as part of their overall season press release back in February, and it has enormous potential, not least because of the collaboration with the National Theatre in London. I also cherish the slight hope that premiering three Scottish history plays might persuade nationalists to stop whinging that the Festival isn't Scottish enough (they seem to have a different definition of the term “international” to the one I'm familiar with). Rona Munro previously wrote The Last Witch for the Festival in 2009 which I didn't see but which seems to have garnered mixed reviews (see for example here and here). She also wrote the final story of Sylvester McCoy's tenure as the Doctor, the excellent Survival. The director, Laurie Sansom is new to me. The cast includes James McArdle who much impressed me in the Hampstead Theatre adaptation of Chariots of Fire, Blythe Duff (who it seems I may have seen eons ago in the ENO Street Scene), Sofie Grabol (big in Scandinavian crime drama which I haven't watched, but my girlfriend and crime drama expert Rachael informs me she's very good) and Cameron Barnes (previously in the superb Black Watch). Altogether this looks highly promising. The only caveat I would make is the last NTS production I saw at the Festival was the flawed Bacchae.
Next up we have the return of Luk Perceval (last seen at the Festival in 2004 with a well reviewed production of Andromache) directing Thalia Theater of Hamburg in a First World War epic, Front (partly based on All Quiet on the Western Front). The festival brochure describes this as a polyphonic performance, but the internet has not revealed any reviews to clarify what this actually means. There have of course been epic flops at the festival in the past, but my impression of this is of real potential, and a show well worth taking a chance on. Some further details and visuals are available on Perceval's website. The show premieres in Hamburg this coming weekend so we may learn more after that.
At the completely opposite end of the spectrum we have a production of Thomas Bernhard's Minetti performed by Peter Eyre and directed by Tom Cairns. I discover that I previously saw Eyre in the Almeida's superb Waste and in a production of Mozart's Zaide at Aldeburgh (presumably as narrator). Tom Cairns directed the National's recent superb Scenes from an Execution and the solid if not remarkable EIF/Opera North 2012 Makropulos Case. The premise of the piece, an actor preparing a comeback as Lear, is intriguing. The Festival's best theatre in recent years has been these small intimate pieces - again this looks well worth catching.
Also with recent London pedigree is Ganesh Versus the Third Reich which plays the Lyceum at the beginning of Week 1, and was part of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) in 2012. The show was selected by The Guardian as one of its best of 2012. It is a not unusual (for the Festival) mix of the behind the scenes rehearsals and the play being prepared (a story of the elephant headed Hindu god Ganesh journeying through Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika). These kinds of stories have often gone wrong at past Festivals, but the reviews all suggest something challenging and compelling (other takes here, here and here - it's worth noting that it's very rare for a theatre show to arrive in Edinburgh trailing such a bevy of positive reviews). This looks unmissable.
Finally, on the London connections front, we have a revival of Ubu and the Truth Commission by the Handspring Puppet Company directed by William Kentridge, responsible for the magnificent puppetry of the National's War Horse. This show dates all the way back to 1997, explored the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission and is revived to mark the 20th anniversary of democracy in South Africa. There's an excellent exploration of the play and its context here. This is another interesting choice, and one which looks well worth seeing.
For the remaining two productions classified as theatre I have no direct experience to enable me to judge their likely quality. Canadian Stage bring a "multimedia thriller" Helen Lawrence and the director Stan Douglas is apparently an "installation artist and photographer". According to The Globe and Mail the cast are going to perform in front of green screens. It all sounds horribly reminiscent of 2013's diabolical Fidelio. Probably best to wait for the reviews on this one.
We also have some visiting Russians from the Chekhov International Theatre Festival in collaboration with SounDrama Studio. The play, The War, set in Paris, 1913, is part, once again, of the Festival's First World War theme. There appears to be innovative technique at work here described in the brochure as "sound-drama" where "music, movement and rhythm heighten the dramatic action" - this is the sort of thing that could go either way (you can read more about SounDrama on their website). Again, probably best to wait for the reviews.
Lastly, not listed as theatre, but worth mentioning, is the return on the final weekend of musikFabrik (responsible for last year's blazingly magnificent Zappa tribute). This time they are working with MacMaster Festival regular Heiner Goebbels to perform American composer Harry Partch's Delusion of the Fury. Goebbels's Eraritjaritjaka was a highlight of Festival 2004. There's an introductory film here and a favourable FT review of the Ruhrtriennale premiere last September here. This looks strongly like an unique experience in the best sense, and I look forward to seeing it.
2014 marks Jonathan Mills's final year as Artistic Director of the Festival and the programme is one of the best of what has been, especially in operatic terms, an uneven tenure. Some of the causes of that are self-inflicted (the refusal to make use of excellent locally-based talent to which reference has already been made), and some of it has been beyond his control (the weak state of Scottish Opera). It will be interesting to see what incoming Director Fergus Linehan makes of these challenges in 2015.
[Our roundup of the music programme is available here.]