Classical: An embarrassment of operatic riches

With its focus on Verdi and Schiller, the Edinburgh Festival has at last proved it is a worthy home to lyric theatre.
IF OPERA is the flagship of any international festival, as we are told, then Edinburgh is now in good shape after almost ceasing to exist a few years ago. This year there are six operas (three in concert performance) featuring works by Verdi and Smetana.

The Verdi theme arose from the Royal Opera's ability to offer three works based on plays by Schiller. Why not present these operas, together with performances of the Schiller plays that form their background? In the event, to Don Carlos, I masnadieri and Luisa Miller was added a scratch performance of Giovanna d'Arco, so there was a complete inventory of Verdi's Schiller operas.

Don Carlos stood out as a staggering achievement. It ran for almost five hours, but every minute was enthralling. Luc Bondy's Covent Garden production was nimbly revived by Patrick Young, and the stately, colourful Karita Mattila as Elisabeth dominated the scene. Julian Gavin, as Carlos, fielded a boyish, vulnerable tenor, balanced by the vast bass of Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Philip and the heroic baritone of Thomas Hampson as Rodrigue. Bernard Haitink conducted a bell-like, sonorous Royal Opera Orchestra, enjoying the miraculous acoustic of the Festival Theatre.

I masnadieri, by comparison, is musical hokum, but it was convincingly staged by Elijah Moshinsky, with picture-postcard costumes and slightly abstract sets by Paul Brown. In this adaptation of The Robbers, the dominant figure was the Russian singer Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the wicked Francesco, a classic sneering baddy, his dark tone flowing with prodigious abundance.

Sometimes a concert performance can free the artists to give more than is possible when they are gesturing, sitting, embracing or fighting; everyone faces front and has the support of a score, and there is no producer's blocking to remember. Luisa Miller, given in concert, was totally electric. The overall vitality came largely from Mark Elder's spirited conducting, but the commanding Paata Burchuladze as Walter and the light-toned, agile Fiorella Burato as Luisa kept the excitement high. The tenor Ignacio Encinas as Rodolfo became too excited and sang occasionally sharp; but it almost seemed like a good fault, a sign of the sparkling effervescence which permeated everything.

To complete the Schiller canon, Richard Armstrong with the Scottish Opera Orchestra, the Festival Chorus and a mixed assortment of soloists gave a concert version of one of Verdi's rarely-heard early works, Giovanna d'Arco. It had, perhaps, been put together in a hurry. Anthony Michaels- Moore was a warm and sincere Giacomo, but the firm-toned Zvetelina Vassileva as Joan of Arc was sometimes flat, and the Carlo (the tenor Jean-Francis Monvoisin) had a synthetic, tightly-focused sound which proved trying to the ear. The chorus were lukewarm and dreary. A pity, this, for Giovanna d'Arco contains some of the young Verdi's best music.

The linking of Verdi and Schiller is just the kind of thing you can do at a big festival, and two of these performances were of real festival standard, benchmarks for any opera company in the world. Equally festive were the two concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at the Usher Hall.

Even if it lacked Bryn Terfel, who was forced to withdraw at the last moment, Beethoven's mighty "Choral" Symphony plucked sounding glory from the fury of battle. Claudio Abbado made no attempt to seek out the levels of sadness and defeat which can sometimes be found hidden in this gigantic score. On the other hand, the maestro's reading of Brahms's Third Symphony was absolutely supreme. The capacious breadth with which the violins swept into the first movement, the sad beauty that closed the slow movement, the songful mezza voce of the Allegretto - these were simply not human, but divine. Somehow, this special orchestra manages to dissolve its army of temperamental generals into a unison of perfect discipline.