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Visual arts >

Orpheus with a light hand

William Dundas reports from the Edinburgh International Festival

JONATHAN MILLS has arrived. He is the new director of the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF). The main planks of his musical offerings this year have been the birth of opera, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, Vivaldi, and Purcell onwards. There was also a wealth of polyphonic choral music, religious and secular.

L’Orfeo was presented in a lavish production that some readers may have had the opportunity of seeing in the Gran Teatre del Liceo, Barcelona, in 2002. The conductor/music director was Jordi Savall, with La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Le Concert des Nations.

On entering the auditorium, one saw ornamental rock-faces either side of the proscenium arch, spanned by a cloud. The curtain reflected the audience, thus including them and implicating them in the action that was to ensue.

The orchestra was located in a specially built pit or enclosure at stalls level. The forces were arranged symmetrically, with a chamber organ and harpsichord both right and left. Jordi Savall processed from the back of the stalls through the audience to the pit. This was yet another device to include the audience in the proceedings.

The period sound of the orchestra was skilfully crafted from the opening fanfares with trumpets through the joyous dances and the times of despair that were to follow. Savall’s cause was to use the drama as the absolute heartbeat of the performance. This led, in the second half in particular, to some longueurs.

Visually, the production and design (William Orlandi) were fresh and breezy in the rural scenes and atmospherically eerie in the underworld. The lighting (Bruno Boyer) was impeccable.

The chorus sang from positions behind the orchestra and in front of the rocks, thus leaving a full and open view of the stage at all times. Gilbert Deflo’s direction was at all times light-handed, and assisted greatly in the action progressing with clarity and ease.

Veronica Endo’s choreography was a skilful mix of classical lyricism with just the right amount of hectic dash to lift the spirit.

There were three principal singing characters, Orfeo (Furio Zanasi), Euridice (Arianna Savall), and La Musica (Monserrat Figueras). The 11 other characters stepped out from within the chorus to deliver their roles. Zanasi held up well as Orfeo, and Savall proved herself a fine singer and emotional actress. It was Figueras whose performance fell below the line.

This was an opulent and glittering night in the theatre, but I was left less fully revived and transformed than I had expected.

JORDI SAVALL gave a solo recital in the Queen’s Hall. His instrument is the viola da gamba. It is unknown to many: but after this recital it was the talk of Edinburgh, and fêted in many reviews. Many people, I imagine, will think of the gamba as a viol, and, in consequence, imagine it to be capable only of “continuo-style plodding”. Not so! Savall displayed the virtuosity of the instrument, his own technique, and a wide-ranging repertoire.

Carl Abell’s prelude literally launched the recital on elegant arpeggios, floating the audience away from 21st-century concerns. It was followed by pieces by Bach, and a Burlesque Aria by Schneck showing off the deep sonority of the lower strings. A Prelude by de Machy was truly earth-shaking in its dynamic and lyrical range. He finished with a set of bagpipe tunes. A return visit is required.

THE Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO) has featured strongly in this year’s EIF. I attended a programme of Italian Baroque music featuring concertos by Corelli, Geminiani, Vivaldi, and Scarlatti. These were performed in authentic style, but not on period instruments. For the Geminiani (Concerto Grosso in D minor Op. 7 No. 2), the orchestra was split with a harpsichord and organ at each side. Only the cellists, basses, and continuo-players were seated. There was no conductor. Chiara Banchini directed the players from within their ranks. The chitter-chatter of antiphonal effects worked well in the clean acoustic of the Usher Hall.

The concert included a performance of Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater in F minor (RV621). This is Vivaldi’s earliest datable sacred vocal composition. It was commissioned in 1712 for performance in a church in Brescia. The soloist in Edinburgh was Andreas Scholl. He has been a countertenor pin-up for many years, and has contributed significantly to the genre. In this performance, he did not seem at ease with himself or indeed with the music. He fell below the countertenor register on a few occasions along the way.

Vivaldi was, in this work, only finding his way in terms of fusing words and music together. This setting is, however, both convincing and compelling. It would have benefited from more confident performance.

THE SCO were the orchestral forces behind Nicholas McGegan’s concert performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Jane Irwin sang the title role. She is, of course, one of the firebrands of the younger generation of British singers. She handled the delicacy of Dido’s plight with vulnerability and strength. Her Aeneas was Roderick Williams. He is another bright young Brit. Together they conveyed their emotions in a seemingly effortless and beautifully controlled manner.

McGegan’s conducting was deft, measured, and airy. The SCO Chorus contributed well, and their “witches’ echo chorus” was a triumph of dynamics, intonation, and devilish chortling. This was a gracious performance, brought to a memorable end with Jane Irwin’s performance of Dido’s lament. It was poised. It was dignified. It was superb.

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