The opening chords of Stuart MacRae's first opera, The Assassin Tree, announce an evening of almost comical unlikeability. Tuba and piccolo thunder and squeal fortississimo, while trombones twist like colons in spasm. Beyond them, on stage, a dancer clad in black slacks and turtleneck slaps his chest and scissors his legs, his face obscured by a balaclava. Above him, on a scaffold of stage lights, hangs a slender blonde in a robe fashioned from platinum hair extensions.
In a festival famous for its fastidious adherence to quality over hype, The Assassin Tree is an anomaly. On paper, a collaboration between Scotland's most distinctive young composer and the poet Simon Armitage looked promising, notwithstanding the involvement of dance gurus Pieter C Scholten and Emio Greco in the production. MacRae's instrumental music has a brutal charisma. Sadly, his dramaturgy does not. Mistrustful of opera's ability to convey the subtle nuances of human dialogue, he and Armitage took a phlebitic myth from The Golden Bough for their subject. Diana (Gillian Keith) is the goddess of nature, a femme fatale (yawn) whose Priest/Lover (Paul Whelan) must kill or be killed by his would-be successors, a Slave (Peter Van Hulle) and a Youth (Colin Ainsworth).
Being archetypes, there is little characterisation beyond the iteration of their incompatible appetites. Threaded through the glissandi violins and charred, knotted figures for brass - powerfully realised by the Britten Sinfonia under Garry Walker - MacRae's vocal lines commence at mid-to-high pitch, plunge into pot-holes, then soar above the stave in Antipodean interrogatives. Armitage's libretto is largely obscured, though what is audible - "When you cut through the breeze, does it bleed?" - is silly enough not to make one mind not hearing more of it.
Scholten and Greco's hieratic choreography does not, as it did in Gluck's Orfeo, ridicule the score, though it does amplify its impenetrability. While I dread to think how many C-list celebrities have been forced to stay in while The Assassin Tree is playing, I liked Clifford Portier's hair-extension costumes, and the singing of the cast - especially Keith's lithe, sour-sweet soprano - is impressive. MacRae may yet find a way to translate his music to the stage. But it beggars belief that the Edinburgh Festival should award such a high-profile commission to a composer who has yet to serve an apprenticeship in the specific demands of sung drama.
The Usher Hall triple-bills were an altogether more successful innovation. I had wondered whether putting Bruckner's Sixth Symphony in the 9.30pm slot last weekend might stupify an audience already marinaded in Bach (7.30pm) and Beethoven (5.30pm). Instead, it was galvanizing. For a Wagnerian conductor of Donald Runnicles's stature, parsing Bruckner's elliptical arguments is a cinch. But for the persistent tonal disagreement between the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's leader Elizabeth Layton and the rest of the first violins, whose sound I rather prefer, this was a near impeccable performance.
Less convincing was Northern Sinfonia's Bach with Thomas Zehetmair, a violinist/director who phrases from the top down. The first Brandenburg Concerto is difficult to play gracefully. When the solo violinist cannot see or be seen by the first oboe, it is impossible. Northern Sinfonia's incisive sound is pleasing, as was the piquant recorder playing of Pamela Thorby and Ailsa Reid in the Fourth Concerto, and Zehetmair's breathtaking technical fluency in this and the Second Concerto. But dashing every hemiola to the ground like a death metal guitarist is hardly stylish, and the continuo cello was inexcusably robotic.
So to Sir Charles Mackerras's account of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. I've heard it before, though not with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and it deepens every time. The restoration of the contra-bassoon part gives the Allegretto a thick, glossy seam of added intensity, while the playing of principal cellist David Watkin - a veteran of Mackerras's Beethoven Cycle with the Philharmonia - was indefatigably exhilarating and enlightening. Should Zehetmair want to understand the importance of a bass line, or Layton wish to learn how to inspire a section, they need look no further.
'The Assassin Tree', Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House (020 7304 4000), Wed to FriReuse content