Usher Hall / Lyceum / Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
As befits an Edinburgh Festival posing a question about the direction of travel in this century, the third weekend of the programme offered an excellent opportunity to hear and see crucial works of the last one.
Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila-Symphonie, Benjamin Britten’s dramatic cantata Phaedre and Kurt Weill’s breakthrough music-theatre work Die Dreigroschenoper are all essential to an understanding of the art of their creators, even if the Britten is from the very end of his life.
Phaedre has not been heard at the Festival for almost 20 years and this staging by Deborah Warner featured a visceral acting performance from mezzo Christine Rice that made the work a chamber opera. Using a piano version of the score, played with percussive propulsion by Richard Hetherington, the instrument itself became one of the simple props (alongside sheets, a chair, shoes) at her disposal.
If the structure of the work is Handelian, the emotional heft of Britten’s setting of Robert Lowell’s text is searingly contemporary – the work is not yet half a century old. Rice conveyed the passion of her character’s incestuous love powerfully, but more moving was the mix of wistfulness and regret she found in the work’s closing bars.
Warner partners the work with a danced version of the story of Phaedre’s sister Ariadne, played by Royal Ballet artist Isabel Lubach. The sound collage by Eilon Morris was a long way from Britten but its broad palette served the classical line of Kim Brandstrup’s choreography well, Lubach partnered by Tommy Frantzen and Jonathan Goddard.
The work of Elizabeth Hauptmann that Bertolt Brecht used in the writing of the adaptation of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera half a century earlier is no longer unacknowledged. Australian director Barrie Kosky’s Berliner Ensemble production of The Threepenny Opera may be very self-consciously “Brechtian” in much of its conception, but he is as admiring of Brecht’s collaborators, especially composer Kurt Weill.
The score was performed by an authentic seven-piece pit band led by Adam Benzwi from piano and harmonium, and the singing actors had varying levels of musical ability, with Gabriel Schneider’s charismatic Macheath and especially Bettina Hoppe’s soulful Spelunken-Jenny the best of them.
The distancing achieved by Rebecca Ringst’s somewhat grandiose designs – six tall multi-platformed towers moving up and down stage on rails – might have fitted Brechtian philosophy, but while the performers went out of their way to engage with the audience front-of-cloth, they only rarely engaged with one another. Doubtless this was deliberate, but it sometimes made the Festival Theatre stage look very large for the show. And for a script with a lot of sex – and a Kosky production – it wasn’t very sexy.
Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila is all about sex, alongside the Tristan and Isolde myth, Eastern music, birdsong, and his devout Catholicism. The fact that the composer saw no contradiction in any of these elements is what makes it so thrilling.
There will be few performances of this massive piece from the mid-point of the 20th century as thrilling as the one by the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle that brought the orchestra’s Festival residency to a close. There was a real sense of occasion before a note was played, as Rattle’s tenure as music director of the LSO comes to an end, Festival director Nicola Benedetti opening the evening’s two concerts with a lavish encomium to Rattle’s place in British music.
He reacted, as he only could, by moving swiftly on to talk about “The Road to Turangalila”, the title given to the three works in a preceding early evening concert that influenced Messiaen’s masterpiece. His comparison of Pierre Boulez’s reaction to the work with Fringe perennials The Ladyboys of Bangkok, encamped across Lothian Road, was wittily provocative.
The Fanfare from La Peri by Dukas, Milhaud’s La creation du monde, and Debussy’s La Mer paved that road. If 11 LSO players made the fanfare sparkle and the full orchestra gave a wonderfully rich account of the Debussy, with terrific soloists and a choral quality to the strings, the Milhaud was the revelation.
An alto sax has the lead line at the start of the piece, but the jazz content of this 1923 piece really kicks in with arco bass and a “Hot Five” front line of trombone, trumpet and clarinet from the 20-piece ensemble. Here was evidence from this side of the Atlantic to support Duke Ellington’s argument against labelling genres of music.
If jazz and movies are the great cultural developments of the 20th century, Turangalila is the musical expression of widescreen cinemascope. Rattle’s partnership with pianist Peter Donohoe on this work goes back to his time with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and Donohoe was as important as the LSO to the spectacular success of this rendition. So too, of course, was Cynthia Millar at the ondes Martenot, with its unique swooping proto-synthesiser sound, but it was always very carefully placed in the mix, and the other solo voices in the orchestra, as well as every detail of the percussion (requiring 10 players), were equally favoured.
Beyond argument, Turangalila was one of the events for which Benedetti’s first Festival will be remembered; the fact that the Usher Hall was full for the concert was also a notable achievement.