Cecilia Bartoli as Norma (Photo Credit: Hans-Jörg Michel)
Last year’s was the first Edinburgh Festival I’ve missed for twenty-something years, and I was very pleased to return this year, if only briefly, to attend half a dozen performances at the International Festival. Next year will be the 70th anniversary of the great post-War European cultural gathering initiated by the late Sir Rudolf Bing, who was then running Glyndebourne Opera. The entire ethos of the EIF is a riposte to those who voted for Brexit, so this is a very good moment to participate in the Festival, and to reflect on the changes to it.
Everyone I encountered had a cheerful bad word to say for the chrome yellow livery adopted for this year’s brochure and programmes which, with their upper-case “handwritten” titles, resemble school notebooks. I wasn’t so disturbed by their design, child-like though it is, and failed to see any connection between this design decision and the fairly new regime of festival director Fergus Linehan: indeed, he is so self-effacing that some of the introductions to the programmes no longer bear the by-line of the director, and in these cases you can only learn the identity of the chief executive of the EIF by looking at the very small print on one of the back pages of the programme. In this, he is unlike his predecessor (to declare an interest, my friend), Sir Jonathan Mills, who often used the programmes’ foreword to link the performance to the overall theme of the year’s Festival.
The implicit message of the chrome-yellow haters is that they feel the standard of Festival programming is slipping. This is certainly not the case for the six EIF events I managed to see and hear in my few days there. (Time was a bit too short, and personal energy levels a bit too low, for me to catch anything on the Fringe.) Judging from my 2016 Festival experience, Mr Linehan is carrying on exactly as Jonathan, who retired from the post two years ago, might have wished – with the exception that the Festivals are no longer themed.
My Festival began on a Sunday night with the transfer of the Salzburg Festival production of Bellini’s Norma, inspired by and starring Cecilia Bartoli. Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier directed what for me was a life-changing event. I’ve seen for or five Normas, but only last week did I realise that this bel-canto opera is a masterpiece, more than an excuse for the soprano to sing the aria Casta Diva, and then faff around with her Druids for another hour or so. As most of my colleagues report in their reviews, I have rarely – in my case, never until now – been moved by this opera. Bartoli is one of the few opera singers who is not coy about her age: she is fifty and has been performing for about thirty of those years, so it is astonishing that this is her Edinburgh Festival début. She’s chosen a piece for it that we associate with another Edinburgh star, Maria Callas, who was after all, a soprano, as the score specifies. Bartoli is firmly a mezzo, with a thrillingly dark, coloured, liquid tone, and this production, purposely designed to be drab by Christian Fenouillat, is the anti-Callas Norma. Bartoli argues that the role was written for Giuditta Pasta, who must have possessed a vocal range much like her own, rather than that of the bright-voiced, dramatic sopranos more familiar to us as Normas. The important thing is the flexibility and vocal agility needed for the coloratura passages, plus the ability to deliver the dramatic passages that demand a rapid, firm descent into the lower register.
And goodness, doesn’t Bartoli deliver. As she said, when asked whether her voice wasn’t too small for the role – small voices don’t matter; what matters are big characterisations. Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre is not tiny, but it’s not the Met or the Coliseum; and she was helped by performing (what she insists is the best new edition) with the 19th-century period-instrument orchestra, I Barocchisti, seated in a mostly covered pit, conducted in a last-minute substitution by Gianluca Capuano, the chorus master of the wonderful Swiss Radio and Television chorus. They were convincing as WWII French Resistance fighters/Italian Partisans – or maybe they were an IRA rabble. Hard to know, as the transposition doesn’t fit the religious dottiness of the libretto anyway, though it does work with the plot. Whether Norma is the Druid High Priestess seeking to rid Gaul of its Roman occupiers, or a Resistance worker against the occupying Nazis, she is sleeping with the enemy. John Osborn’s Pollione is certainly some kind of a thuggish fascist, but when he coolly undresses to have his way with Norma’s deputy, Adalgisa (the fine Mexican soprano, Rebeca Olivera), you can see why this Norma might go so mad with jealousy as to threaten the lives of her children.
For a moment at the beginning I was worried by some scratchy ensemble work, but the minute Bartoli opened her mouth, Capuano gained control of both orchestra and chorus and never lapsed. Musically this production, which originated in 2013, is superlative, and some nifty lighting by Christophe Forey helps Bartoli convey both her anguish and anger. Bartoli has told an interviewer that her costume (by Agostino Cavalca) channels the Oscar-winning Anna Magnani, and that she hopes that the production recalls Italian Neo-realist films. Bartoli’s Norma is so disturbing and compelling that it’s a shame there’s no Oscar given for Best Actress in an opera. As a bonus, Bartoli’s Casta Diva sometimes seems to be almost whispered, and is hypnotic and supremely affecting.Casta Diva,
I was a little less ecstatic during the Queen’s Hall 11.0 recital of Lieder by Beethoven and Schubert’s Schwanengesang sung by the excellent tenor, Mark Padmore, partnered by Kristian Bezuidenhout on the fortepiano. It was all so quiet and low key – though Padmore did manage at least ff in “Der Atlas,” and his dynamic modulation to pp for “Ihr Bild” was superb. Their rendering of “Abschied” made it obvious that the fortepiano was the correct instrument for this song.
Another Queen’s Hall recital by American prodigy pianist, George Li, was the flashy exact opposite. In Chopin’s Piano Sonata No 2 in B-flat minor, the Marche funèbre was like the score of an as yet unmade film, changing this familiar piece into something new, and so strong and stirring that it interfered with the listener’s breathing pattern. In the Liszt Consolation No 3 in D-flat major, Li’s fingers flew across the keys more rapidly than any singer could vocalise the same passages. But I suppose this is what is meant by “breathtaking.”
I’ve been to plenty of recitals at the Usher Hall (as well as concerts for large orchestras and huge choruses), but I’ve never before had trouble hearing. Yet I and both my seating companions in row P of the stalls were straining to hear Maxim Vengerov and Roustem Saïtkoulov for the first two works on their program, the Schubert Violin Sonata in A major, D574, “Duo” and the Beethoven Violin Sonata in C minor, Op 30, No 2. Perhaps Vengerov was unhappy, or uncomfortable with the programme: I’m not aware that the Usher Hall sound people normally amplify violin/piano recitals, but we simply could not hear properly. Then, in the second half, Vengerov pitched himself into the Ravel Violin Sonata in G major and – we could hear! It was splendid. I detected a few bars of a theme that I had previously thought were by Gershwin – hommage or borrowing? And which came first (this seems to have been composed 1923-28)?
Suddenly Vengerov was his old self, with a display of rip-roaring virtuosity in Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst’s Polyphonic Étude No 6, “The Last Rose of Summer”, in which the violinist did things I had thought technically impossible, such as double-, or perhaps even treble-stopping harmonics; left-hand pizzicato in counterpoint to the bowing; and at one point I convinced myself he was playing a chord involving stopping all four strings. He was happy – Paganini succeeded Paganini, and there were four encores, mostly by Kreisler. The audience went nuts. Of course.
If you go to the main hall of the Hub at 10 pm for the next few days, you’ll discover a nightclub, fitted up brilliantly with tables booths seating six on a raked floor, and bars with wait staff kitted up in – chrome yellow – uniforms. This is where that great Hamlet, Alan Cumming, sings “Sappy Songs.” Near the end of his programme he lets you in on the great secret of the EIF, the encores are not spontaneous. Dispelling the smoke and mirrors of more kinds of performance than his own cabaret act, he tells you exactly what’s going to be penultimate and how it will all end. I loved it. It’s a personal show, with a super piano-cum-backing singer, a percussionist, and a woman playing an alarmingly black graphite cello.
I’m showing my great age when I say I recognised few of the songs, but his delivery is highly musical (without actually making you yearn for him to sing Lieder), and his stories touch a great many nerves. The Freudian analyst sharing my table felt a little uncomfortable, as he thought Cumming was showing that he was needy, and wanted attention and approval. I noticed the same thing but thought it involved a good deal of irony, and was blissed out, though it was the first time I knowingly heard songs by Adèle, Lady Gaga and somebody else whose name I can’t remember.
If there’s a difference in the Linehan regime it’s that this show would probably not have been part of the EIF, but would have featured on the Fringe – at the expense of the wonderful sets, sound system, bar and long run. The Fringe part is true, with knobs on, for “Barry Humphries’ Weimar Cabaret,” as this tribute-event took over the entire Usher Hall for two nights. The only frocks on stage were worn by two female members of the Australian troupe Humphries has assembled – the cabaret artist, Meow Meow (whom I have praised for one of her previous Edinburgh appearances) and the 2nd violin-cum-mezzo who sang a Marlene Dietrich-like torch song that was the high point of the evening. I think she’s called Satu Vänskä, but am not certain as she’s not featured in the programme. Humphries, eschewing Dame Edna, presents himself in an elegant smoking jacket as he explains the history, some of it autobiographical, behind the numbers being performed by them and the 17-strong Australian Chamber Orchestra. It’s mostly music he first found at home in Melbourne in a suitcase belonging to an exiled German or Austrian Jew, and it’s by composers Hitler hated. Some of it is familiar, such as those by Kurt Weill with words by Brecht, but most was new to me. I already knew a few things by Hindemith, but this Kammermusik No 1 Op 24 was stirring stuff, as was Ernst Toch’s (1886-1964) amazing Dada-ist 1930 Füge aus der Geographie, for spoken chorus, performed gloriously by the orchestra, led by Richard Tognetti. It’s a genuinely eccentric evening, as we’d hope and expect from Mr Humphries. Conceptually, it doesn’t quite work – some of the Central European composers had too little to do with Weimar to rate inclusion. But the pleasure of hearing Barry Humphries sing a couple of numbers in his own chest voice, as opposed to Dame Edna’s falsetto, excuses a plethora of shortcomings or sins against history and geography.