Friday, 24 March 2017

EIF 2017 – The Opera and Theatre Programme, or, Don't Let the Volume Deceive You

After taking a couple of years off (once through busyness and last year because we were pretty annoyed with the Festival) our annual commentary on the Opera and Theatre programme returns...

Opera

After some comparatively lean years, the 2017 edition of the festival presents nine operas. The devil, however, is in the detail.

Let us start with the positives. After their stunning Nozze di Figaro in Linehan's first year, the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Ivan Fischer return with a semi-staging of Don Giovanni. This is a revival of a production first staged in Budapest in 2010 and in New York in 2011 (warmly reviewed here and here and less so here). Laura Aiken, evidently a standout in New York, reprises her Donna Anna, and I look forward to hearing Christopher Maltman as the Don. The 2015 Figaro in Edinburgh was one of my finest operatic experiences of recent years. Highly recommended.


The 2017 Festival also boasts some exceptionally cast concert opera. The Festival's concert Ring continues with Die Walkure. I do lament that again Donald Runnicles is not on the podium – we can only hope that the Festival has him lined up for one of the remaining instalments. Still, though I haven't heard him in this rep, Sir Andrew Davis is a fine opera conductor and the Festival has assembled a remarkably strong line-up of soloists – including Bryn Terfel as Wotan, Karen Cargill as Fricka and most notably Christine Goerke as Brunnhilde.

I am less convinced of the merits of yet another concert performance of Peter Grimes – which seems to have been done a little too often around the Britten centenary. I find it hard to imagine a performance exceeding the quality of the concert performance and Aldeburgh beach staging at the 2013 Aldeburgh Festival. It also does frustrate me that concert performances of Britten's operas seem to start and end with Grimes (Paul Bunyan, so close to my heart, always seems to me an obvious candidate for this format). But Grimes will put bums on seats as Bunyan won't, and bums on seats is a very clear concern of this Festival programme (it isn't that I object to programming popular works that sell, it is simply a question of balance, and the balance is off across the 2017 programme). All that said it is some time since the work was seen in Scotland, and this does boast another very strong line-up of soloists including Stuart Skelton as Grimes and Erin Wall, who has happily been a regular Edinburgh visitor in recent years, as Ellen Orford. Edward Gardner is an excellent interpreter of this repertoire and it will be exciting to hear his partnership with the Bergen Philharmonic.

The flagship visiting opera company poses bigger questions. Following their concert William Tell in 2014, Teatro Regio Turino return under Gianandrea Noseda to perform Verdi's Macbeth and Puccini's La Boheme. This will be the fourth time the Festival has programmed the Verdi in my twenty years attendance, and the second staging. This is part of a Festival 70th birthday strand – it being one of the operas performed in the first edition in 1947 - but quite frankly I don't really find this a sufficient justification for programming it again, not least because it isn't, in my view, one of Verdi's finest works. The director, Emma Dante, will be new to me – critical reaction to her other operatic outings seems mixed (see for example on her La Scala Carmen here and here and more positively from the New York Times). The production premieres in Turin in late June, so Edinburgh is buying it in unseen.

The choice of La Boheme strikes me as even more questionable. Apart from anything else Scottish Opera is staging a new production of the same work in the same venue in May-June of this year. Was it really not possible to bring something more adventurous as the second touring show? It will be interesting to see, given the proximity of the two runs and the slightly higher prices for the Turino edition, whether it will sell. The singers are unknown to me. I suspect it has been programmed because the director is Alex Olle who did what I'm told was an excellent production of Ligeti's La Grande Macabre at ENO a few years back and a Norma at the Royal Opera last autumn which garnered a slightly more mixed response. The production has already premiered and you can read a mixed review here and what looks like a more positive one behind The Times pay wall here. This is finally a piece of safe, frankly not very inspired programming.

We come next to a tale of ludicrous scheduling and questionable bedfellows. A new production of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Greek, originally co-commissioned by the Festival, is a far bolder celebration of the 70th anniversary than the Macbeth (though my one encounter with the score a few years back did not make me an instant believer). Unfortunately, those who have been commissioned to stage it do not inspire confidence. It is a co-commission with a new charity called Opera Ventures. This turns out to involve John Berry, recently a disastrous Artistic Director of English National Opera – it also, so far as a Google search is any guide, hasn't yet done anything. The director is Joe Hill-Gibbins. As far as I can establish from the web this is the first time he's directed an opera. Such hirings were a regular feature of Berry's ENO tenure and produced a plethora of terrible stagings. My only encounter with Hill-Gibbins's work was a dire production of Edward II at the National in 2013. The omens for this are, I'm afraid, not good. And then we come to the scheduling. For reasons that escape me the two performances are programmed against the Opening Concert (featuring the comparatively rare Mendelssohn Two) and the already mentioned outstandingly cast Die Walkure. It's difficult enough to get an audience for modern opera. To programme it against such obvious and strong competition seems a very poor decision.

Finally, we come to what some will regard as the flagship shows in the opera programme – three concert performances of Monteverdi operas from John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists. Eliot Gardener unfailingly sells (though to my surprise the Festival seems less confident about this than I would have expected and the Upper Circle of the Usher Hall is on sale only for L'Orfeo). Personally I was unconvinced by the two most recent Eliot Gardiner performances I heard – an emotionally unengaging Orfeo ed Eurydice at the Royal Opera (though I was very much in a minority on that) and a dull, fussy Symphonie Fantastique in Edinburgh. I will also confess that I've never really managed to get on with Monteverdi as a composer. It also seems odd that no soloists are listed. Family members tell me that in other choral works they've seen the soloists have been drawn from the Monteverdi Choir. Frankly, that gives me pause. In addition, one might also note that Orfeo is another work that has had a comparatively recent outing at the Festival.

In short, while there is certainly an abundance of opera at Festival 2017, the choice of rep is disappointingly safe.

Theatre

There is one point about the 2017 Theatre programme which immediately stands out. Bar one co-production it is entirely Anglophone (and there is no evidence that, despite a Turkish partner, any other language but English will be used in that one). On one level this does not surprise me – there has been a clear tendency in this direction across Linehan's three festivals. It does disappoint me. Some of the finest theatre I've seen in recent years in London or Edinburgh has been in a foreign language (EIF2014's The War and a recent magnificent French production of Ionesco's Rhinoceros come first to mind). Under both McMaster and Mills the Festival maintained a balance between work in English and foreign languages. In the current climate I actually think that cultural richness is even more important. I am surprised that Linehan, alleged to be a theatre man, has done this, and I think it's mistaken. My suspicion is, given tendencies elsewhere in the programme, that this choice has been made because theatre in foreign languages generally doesn't sell. I admit that. But a canny Artistic Director balances the bums on seats stuff with the trickier work. This year's theatre programme doesn't even try and it's particularly ironic given that, judging from other reports, Fergus Linehan was bigging up the European angle of this year's Festival at the launch.

All that said there are interesting things on offer. The flagship production is probably the two part Alan Ayckbourn epic The Divide, which receives its world premiere (though you can read a favourable report of a performed reading in 2015 here and part of The Times review here). I think this is the first time the Festival has included Ayckbourn in my twenty years of attendance. The subject matter – a dystopian future – is acknowledged to be outside Ayckbourn's usual sphere – and this intrigues. That said, it is noticeable that the director, Annabel Bolton (with whom this will be my first encounter), whilst having plenty of associate director experience has few shows as lead director on her CV. Casting is also unannounced. Putting it in the difficult to sell out King's may prove ambitious. There is another annoying scheduling oddity here – both parts are performed together as matinee and evening on several days which is good – but it rather escapes me why, on two of those occasions, Part 2 precedes Part 1 – this does not help someone like myself who arranges complicated Edinburgh schedules and would, ideally, prefer to see both parts on the same day.

For me the highlight of the theatre programme is the return of Barry McGovern in Beckett – this time Krapp's Last Tape. His previous visits with Watt and I'll Go On were the shows that first converted me to Beckett. This promises to be unmissable.

Scottish theatre companies feature heavily in the remainder of the programme. This has been increasingly the case in recent years for, I would suggest, two evident reasons that nobody really wants to discuss – the cultural agenda of Scottish nationalism and the financial situation of the Festival. At least this year it looks as if we're spared another narrow take on Scottish identity of the kind perpetrated in last year's dismal Anything That Gives Off Light.

The most interesting of the line-up is the Royal Lyceum Company's co-production of Ionesco's Rhinoceros adapted by Zinnie Harris, with Turkish company DOT Theatre, directed by the latter's founder Murat Daltaban. This will be my first encounter with the latter. The recent stunning production of the work by Theatre de la Ville-Paris which played the Barbican in 2013 will take some beating.

Next we have the Citizens Theatre with a second Harris adaptation this time of Aeschylus – Oresteia: This Restless House. This played Glasgow last year. Granted it received rave reviews (see here, herehere and here, and a slightly less favourable one here) but is it really the job of the International Festival to be a revival house of things that can be seen in regular Scottish theatre seasons? I'm not convinced.

Vox Motos's Flight sounds distinctly like yet another attempt to marry theatre and technology. For this world premiere the programme advises “Seated in your own personal booth, you will watch the action unfold on images and models slowly moving in front of you, with speech and music conveyed through your own individual headphones.” I am increasingly sceptical about the merits of this sort of approach which in my experience has rarely found the emotional punch of more traditional staging, but perhaps I shall be surprised.

The last of this Scottish quartet is the Traverse Theatre Company. They were last seen at the Festival in 2009 at the Lyceum with Rona Munro's The Last Witch and prior to that in 1999 in two productions also at the Lyceum. I didn't see any of these shows. On this occasion they bring a new play by Zinnie Harris (the observant may have spotted a theme emerging) entitled Meet Me At Dawn. I haven't seen any of her previous work. What does interest me is the scheduling and venue. On this occasion the show slots into the Traverse's Festival programme, with their customary variable time slots across a three week run. This actually makes it easier for me to see it as there are more performances not in conflict with opera and concerts. But it does seem to me to further blur the line between the International Festival and the Fringe. Is this a show that only the EIF could have put on, or could it just as well have formed a regular part of the Traverse's own Fringe programme? I do wonder.

This Fringy dimension of the programme is also reflected, I suggest, in Real Magic from Forced Entertainment, being presented in a new space for the EIF, The Studio at Potterow. The programme informs me that this Sheffield based group are “legendary” - this is the first time I'd run across them. It also advises that it “explodes conventions of genre, narrative and theatre itself.” Theatre shows without number in Edinburgh are always trying to do these sorts of things, so I'm afraid I start off sceptical. Reviews of earlier performances are however favourable (see here and here and here).

Rounding off the theatre programme are two cabaret-esque performances hoping, I suspect, to repeat the success of last year's outstanding Alan Cumming residency. Despite my reservations about her performance alongside Barry Humphreys last year the more promising of the two is Meow Meow's Little Mermaid which comes well reviewed from Sidney (see for example here, here and here). The description of Martin Creed's Words and Music has all the hallmarks of something which might either be stunning or awful.

In short, as with the opera programme, the 2017 edition boasts a large quantity of theatre. But it also raises big questions about the direction the Festival is going. It may well be that the performances will justify these artistic choices but, at this point, count me as a sceptic.

Housekeeping Note: Last year we were very angry with the Festival over its ridiculous staggered booking arrangements - forcing patrons to book for the flagship opera (Norma) in ignorance of the rest of the programme. It is good to see the Festival has reverted to normal, sensible, practice of opening booking for the whole programme in one go. We hope this policy will be maintained in the future.

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