Edinburgh International Festival at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, August 18 and 25
Thaïs and Orlando paladino
Jonathan Mills’s ‘east meets west’ theme brought plenty of Asian actors, dancers and musicians to the 2011 festival. It did not bring any Asian opera. There are contemporary Chinese, Japanese and Korean examples worth importing, but not for a festival that does things on the cheap. So we were thrown back on, well, if not Turandot (which Mills’s predecessor, Brian McMaster, imported in a best-forgotten production from Tokyo) or the ubiquitous Madama Butterfly, then the sort of near-eastern fairytales that European composers concocted as a means of stimulating their own and their audiences’ imagination. Like most composers of the 18th and 19th centuries, Massenet and Haydn had no experience of the orient. Geographical location was merely a peg on which to hang another drama about love—its ideals, shortcomings, delusions and absurdities. Like Die Frau ohne Schatten later in the 2011 festival, Thaïs and Orlando paladino were a fig-leaf to cover the absence not just of Asian singers, directors or ensembles but of any Asian aesthetic in Mills’s opera programme.
Nae bother: Thaïs and Orlando paladino need no extra-musical justification in performances as good as these. Both had a whiff of theatre about them, thanks to Erin Wall’s [pictured] charismatic impersonation of Massenet’s femme fatale, clearly the result of extensive stage experience, and to the entire ensemble in the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra’s Haydn performance under René Jacobs, which came straight from the Innsbruck Early Music Festival. None needed a score. In each case, it felt like a staged performance.
Wall was not far short of the Thaïs of one’s dreams, wielding a soprano of radiance, pristine beauty and tingling top notes, which she hit with the conviction that comes only with a solid technique. Quinn Kelsey was obviously still working himself into the part of Athanaël, but the voice grew in colour as he did in confidence, with Eric Cutler’s Nicias proving a vivid foil. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus (chorus master: Christopher Bell) has never sounded better, and Andrew Davis conducted with a general’s eye and a painter’s touch, so that what impressed was not this scene or that, but the all-embracing sweep of the performance.
In Orlando paladino even the orchestral musicians responded to the dramatic role-playing Haydn gave them. The recitatives crackled with life. The comedy was subtle. Arias were seamlessly integrated into the musical flow. Never in my experience has a group of singers behaved more like a seasoned ensemble, making their entrances and exits as dramatic as the circumstances allowed: it conjured up visions of Haydn’s artistic world at Esterháza. Sine Bundgaard brought fearless vocalism and touching humanity to Angelica. Alexandrina Pendatchanska was the virtuosic Alcina, Stéphane Degout a believable Orlando, Magnus Staveland a musical Medoro. Sunhae Im (Erilla), Victor Torres (Pasquale) and Pietro Spagnoli (Rodomonte) brought the text alive. What they could not do was inject heart-stopping moments into a score that lacks emotional depth.