Cross-dressing opera too much for some

Damnation of Faust | <i>Usher Hall, Edinburgh;</i> Alcina | <i>Festival Theatre, Edinburgh</i>
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The Independent Culture

Expectations ran high for the opening event of this year's Edinburgh International Festival. Not just the first glimpse of the nearly complete £9m refurbishment of the Usher Hall, with its spruced-up auditorium sparkling with new gilt. But a concert that promised real excitement: Berlioz's monumental opéra de concert, The Damnation of Faust with the Cleveland Orchestra, arguably America's finest; 297 massed voices from three choirs; and a starry roster of soloists. It did not disappoint.

Expectations ran high for the opening event of this year's Edinburgh International Festival. Not just the first glimpse of the nearly complete £9m refurbishment of the Usher Hall, with its spruced-up auditorium sparkling with new gilt. But a concert that promised real excitement: Berlioz's monumental opéra de concert, The Damnation of Faust with the Cleveland Orchestra, arguably America's finest; 297 massed voices from three choirs; and a starry roster of soloists. It did not disappoint.

It's right for a choral work that the real stars of this show were the choruses and orchestra. The Cleveland, conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi, with its distinctive polished string sound and sublime woodwind, excelled themselves. This was a performance by turns richly atmospheric, thrillingly dramatic and all the while minutely attentive to the details that define greatness: the haunting viola obbligato in Marguerite's lilting ballad Le roi de Thulé; or the way the harp answers the strings in the Dance of the Sylphs, conjuring not just enchantment and spirits but visions of light on the rippling waters of the Elbe.

Dohnányi's account may have lacked elemental Romantic wildness, the shattering chaos and madness suggested by some of the orchestral writing. But it was nevertheless compelling in the tension he created, relaxing his grip on the orchestra and allowing it to let rip only towards the end when Faust and Méphistophélÿs gallop through a landscape in which all hell has broken loose in the famous Ride to the Abyss, a section so chilling and vividly exhilarating it raised goosebumps.

The choruses too (from Cleveland, Edinburgh and the RSNO Junior Chorus) were outstanding, deftly assuming their multifarious roles, from Hungarian peasants to drunks, to a rabble of Latin-speaking students to the damned and demons singing in an invented language as Pandemonium takes hold, and finally to an angelic host. The sheer volume produced by this number of voices was electrifying.

Of the soloists, Bryn Terfel's Méphistophélÿs towered, both physically and metaphorically, above the others. This is not a work in which the devil has all the best tunes (when Sir Thomas Beecham described it as "a bunch of the loveliest tunes in existence", he was referring to Faust's and Marguerite's as well), but the magnitude of his presence, his repertoire of diabolical expressions - however melodramatic - and that mighty voice left you in no doubt as to who would come out on top. Jennifer Larmore was a touchingly guileless, ardent Marguerite. Only Vinson Cole (replacing the great but indisposed Giuseppe Sabbatini) never quite got the measure of Faust. His is a sweet, lyrical, seamlessly modulated, infinitely careful tenor, but his perpetual expression of pious, pained unease was one-note, and he was never convincing as a man to risk parting with his soul.

In his exhaustive biography of Berlioz, David Cairns describes The Damnation of Faust as "an opera of the mind's eye performed on an ideal stage of the imagination hardly realisable with the framework of live drama". One might be tempted to say the same of Handel's Alcina, the story of a sorceress who changes her suitors into animals, boulders and trees when she tires of them, and which the Stuttgart State Opera staged at the Festival Theatre the following evening.

Though there have been two memorable productions in the past year (Robert Carsen's for the Paris Opéra and David McVicar's for English National Opera) neither completely resolved the manifold and confusing challenges set by the stage directions. In the final act, for instance, "Alcina's palace and everything around it collapses and disappears. The ruins are submerged by the sea." Such practical difficulties are only aggravated by a cast that demands two of the male characters are sung by women, and one of the female characters spends most of the opera disguised as her brother.

The directors of this revelatory and lucid production, Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, have taken an essentially reductive view - as stripped down as ENO's was opulent - but have approached it with real wit and insight.

Written in 1735, Alcina is a Zauberoper or "magic opera", a genre established partly as an excuse for fanciful stagecraft but more as a reaction to the prevailing style of the period, opera seria, which required its characters to abide by a strict moral code. In Zauberoper, the characters are acting under a spell so they can behave as immorally as their creator pleases. Alcina, or this production at least, is therefore about sex.

Given that each of the principal characters is in love with someone who is in turn in love with another, forming a chain that can never be happily resolved, this makes perfect sense. (Of a sort.) And it's also an excuse for a lot of smart gags on issues of sexuality, flirtation, fidelity, gender differentiation and cross-dressing.

It helped that Alcina's lover, Ruggiero, was sung by the terrific English mezzo Alice Coote - the Hilary Swank of the opera world - attractively boyish in a man's suit, shirt half-untucked, and convincingly masculine in the way she both looked and moved. Her passionate scenes with Catherine Naglestad's voluptuous, vamp-like sorceress in a succession of increasingly revealing little black dresses, had a palpable erotic charge - which is rare in an opera house, whatever the ambitions of some composers and directors. Inevitably, it proved too much for some of the good burghers in the audience who booed the production team.

Or perhaps they simply took exception to the set, an unchanging box lined in distressed flock wallpaper, a pile of lumber, assorted weaponry and props in one corner and a vast empty picture frame as the back wall, offering a view to the real rather than enchanted world, and the impetus for a series of artful tableaux and some sharp mirror jokes. Or felt shortchanged that they'd not been treated to the magical coups de théatre and water effects in the libretto.

Musically, too, it was a sensational evening. There was not a weak link in the cast. Naglestad has a gorgeous, sultry, velvety voice, and in this role some of the loveliest arias Handel wrote. Coote - who, we had been warned, was suffering from a back injury following a fall at ENO where she is rehearsing The Coronation of Poppea - is beguilingly expressive and effortlessly dominates the action. A remarkable singing actress, she negotiates her exacting coloratura runs with bravura. And Helene Schneiderman made a delightful Bradamante - Ruggiero's betrothed disguised as her twin brother, and in many ways the catalytic role. Her mezzo is sweet, warm and firm in its focus, and her sense of comic timing, a treat.

The conductor, Alan Hacker, drew dazzling playing from the modern-instrument Stuttgart State Orchestra, the violins incisive and diamond bright, whipping the pace along but allowing the soloists to linger over their glorious set pieces.

Anna Picard is away

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