A particularly diverse and eclectic mixture of dance, drama, music and opera distinguished the 2019 Edinburgh International Festival which has just ended, with something to satisfy even the most jaded palates.
Certainly the most controversial show was Tom Morris’s operatic production Breaking the Waves (King’s Theatre), with music by US composer Missy Mazzoli and staged by Opera Ventures, in collaboration with Scottish Opera. Based on Lars von Trier’s 1996 film, this is a wrenching moral drama about a woman’s twisted bargain with God.
In a strict Calvinist community on the Scottish coast, the innocent, otherworldly Bess McNeill marries the man she loves: Norwegian rig worker Jan Nyman. Bess’s prayers for his return from working off-shore are cruelly answered when he is incapacitated in a horrific accident. Frail and vulnerable, Jan encourages his wife to seek other lovers and recount these liaisons to him. he insists these stories feel like they are making love together and keep him alive. Encouraged, Bess seeks a series of increasingly radical sexual encounters, putting herself in extreme danger.
Mazzoli’s multi-layered, melodic music conjures a dark, luscious soundscape with shades of Britten and Janacek. Soutra Gilmour’s elegant set–a geometric sequence of pillars on a revolve–combined with Richard Howell’s lighting, suggest the hard, unyielding nature of the church, the barren landscape and the setting of the rig. As Bess, American soprano Sydney Mancasola brings some memorable singing to the role and movingly charts the descent of her character from shy Skye bride to Christ-like victim, while Duncan Rock nobly sings the role of her ill-fated husband. Soloists of The Orchestra of Scottish Opera, emphatically conducted by Stuart Stratford, served to heighten the dramatic nature of this dark, harrowing piece.
The Margate company 1927 unearthed a series of rarely told folktales that offer a glimpse of imaginations from a pre-industrialised age and in their latest show entitled Roots (Church Hill Theatre), written and directed by Suzanne Andrade, fuse live action and hand-crafted animation with the early days of cinema in a series of unconnected vignettes, featuring tyrannical ogres, magical birds and very fat and greedy cats. Although it has moments of dark humour, such as the tale of the parents who drown their child in order to have more food, the mood is light and whimsical and the tales generally seem weird and incomplete. It has admittedly a novelty value but remains just harmless fun with good jokes and plenty to delight the senses, but has nothing to say about the world.
The International Festival has welcomed many top orchestras over the years and this year one of the highlights was The Orchestre de Paris. I caught the first of their two programmes at the Usher Hall, which began with Beethoven’s familiar Symphony No. 6, a radiant musical tribute to the natural world, followed by Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, a colourful, Byron-inspired tour of Italy. British conductor Daniel Harding, who has been Music Director of the orchestra since 2016, rose majestically to the occasion and brought the best out of the musicians. I did, however, feel the Beethoven piece seemed rather restrained although the storm sequence at the end was suitably rousing. It was as if the musicians were conserving their full energy for the Berlioz, which was enhanced by the superb playing of French viola player Antoine Tamestit. A very impressive performance.
Over to the Queen’s Hall where I caught The Dunedin Consort, led by harpsichordist John Butt, providing a gloriously theatrical recital, bringing to life the music of J S Bach. This offered a rare chance to experience the closest the composer came to opera, in two larger-than-life secular cantatas, some of his most opulent, joyfully inventive music.
A dance prayer about–and for–the people of Belfast was provided by Belfast-based choreographer and dancer Oona Docherty in the 50-minute piece Hard to be Soft: A Belfast Prayer (Lyceum Theatre), with driving music by DJ David Holmes, which looks behind the masks of violence and machismo to the inner lives of Belfast hard men and strong women. Using stark, sometimes unsettling imagery from Belfast street life and religious ritual and set inside a massive, gleaming cage, it contrasts shocking power with meditative stillness.
It was a pleasure to escape the hurly burly of the festival and retreat into the past with a civilised one-hour entertainment entitled Tea with Mr. Jenners at the ‘Harrods of the North’. We were given a full afternoon tea, hosted by Scotland’s oldest department store, where an actor, suitably attired in 19th century costume, playing the entrepreneurial founder Mr. Jenners, related stories of life in old Edinburgh, within the splendour of the store’s historic wood-panelled boardroom.
Finally we come to what was the best show at the festival–Yang Liping’s exhilarating reinterpretation of The Rite of Spring (Festival Theatre), performed by the Peacock Contemporary Dance Company. This draws on Tibetan concepts of the cycles of life and rebirth and the indivisible unity of humankind and the natural world. Taking inspiration from Chinese and Tibetan symbols of nature, Liping creates preface and coda, framing Stravinsky’s totemic work as the second of three tableaux–Incantation, Sacrifice and Renewal. Providing a provocative new perspective on Stravinsky’s revolutionary ballet of sacrifice and renewal, this is a radical Rite, whose Chosen One willingly gives herself for the good of the community, journeying from terror and doubt to knowledge, empowerment and reincarnation. Bringing together an international creative team–including Oscar-winning designer Tim Yip–and 15 dancers, this is a spectacular, visually ravishing work, shot through with Eastern philosophy, startling colour and images of striking beauty and strangeness, all accompanying Liping’s elegant, dreamlike movement. Parts I and III feature a new musical score from Chinese composer He Xuntian, influences by traditional Tibetan music. Strikingly original, this was a Rite of Spring unlike any other I have seen before.Last modified: June 10, 2021