Though the weather has hardly been Cannes-like in Edinburgh for the past month, the Edinburgh International Film Festival has been screening films which show that it can be just as cutting-edge as Cannes.
“You have to laugh,” Horace (Mark Prendergast) says to Arnolphe (Peter Forbes), the antagonist of Molière’s play, newly translated into rhyming couplets by the Scots Makar Liz Lochhead and revived by Tony Cownie for the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh this spring. This adage is repeated twice more, and the audience must take comfort in it. The world of Educating Agnes is disturbing, devoid of human feeling, and the only coping mechanism for both the audience and the characters is to laugh. The Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh is perfectly suited to taking on this type of 17th-century drama, both in atmosphere and sheer theatrical clout.
There can be no doubt that Tennessee Williams was the preeminent American playwright of his time—at least for a period which, sadly, covered only eighteen years of his life, beginning with his first great Broadway success, “The Glass Menagerie” in 1944 and ending with his last great Broadway success, “The Night of the Iguana,” in 1962. Between those years Williams wrote a series of profound, deeply-affecting works, in which a heady atmosphere originating from his deep southern origins proved irresistable to New York critics and audiences, not to mention certain Hollywood producers and enough people in-between to bring him wealth and celebrity. After “Night of the Iguana,” it all ended as swiftly as it began. His later productions irritated critics and audiences with their lush language and melodrama, if it made much of an impression on them at all.
The terrain of the Scottish Opera company is very broad and rich, and as a result, it yields some strange, glorious fruit. Georg Friedrich Haendel’s baroque opera Orlando, replete with the classic themes of love, madness and redemption, hit the stages of Glasgow and Edinburgh this February and of course, all the audience could do was sit in their seats in awe. Scottish Opera gave this 1733 baroque masterpiece a complete face lift to lighten the drab northern winter, and has garnered nothing but four-star reviews for its efforts.
The greatest surprise in the Kronos Quartet’s concert at Usher Hall was that this was their very first appearance at the Edinburgh Festival. I’d have thought that they’d be regulars going back many years, given their well-known mixture of daring repertory and popular appeal. For almost forty years now, they have achieved almost cult status by playing a certain kind of contemporary music: challenging works which demand concentration but which are sufficiently colorful and aggressive that they commandeer the audience’s attention from start to finish.
Certainly one of the happiest events in the expansion of the classical repertoire in the later twentieth century has been the discovery of Mozart’s first operatic masterpiece, Idomeneo, rè di Creta. Often I think it may be my favorite…until I really start thinking seriously about Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro, but I can say that I feel a special passion for Idomeneo. When one reads about the conductors who have brought it into its still admittedly somewhat intermittent place in the repertory of major opera houses — first among whom is Sir Colin Davis, their passion for the work is always in the foreground. The opera itself is passionate. Mozart clearly responded strongly to the libretto, and this passion is infectious.
Our first Edinburgh Festival and our first visit to Usher Hall opened with a delightful surprise. We didn’t have to get very far into Mozart’s Idomeneo for me to realize that the acoustics of the hall are surpassingly beautiful. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, playing period instruments, and the singers floated in a warm acoustic atmosphere, but the sound was also direct and present, so that the attacks of strings and brass and the fleeting nuances of the human voice were as clear as you could want them to be. Our seats were also several rows in the Grand Circle and well covered by the level above. In most halls the sound becomes rather muffled in that kind of situation, but, when I noticed that I was surrounded by fellow critics, I assumed that the Festival media representatives knew what they were doing. More importantly I loved what I heard.
Before the drawing of the curtains, five Mexicans squat on the stage, toiling timelessly, while a sixth peddles knicknacks in the stalls as though it were a plaza full of tourists with bulging pockets, which it is in a way. “Don’t encourage him,” one utters sheepishly as another plays patron of the quaint local arts and crafts, exported from Mexico to the Edinburgh International Festival.