Opera: Don Carlos for cheapskates

'Don Carlos' & 'I Masnadieri'

Royal Opera, Festival Theatre

Berlioz: 'Grande Messe des Morts'

Royal Scottish National Orchestra

Alicia de Larocha

Usher Hall

Ian Bostridge

Queen's Hall

Something about the Edinburgh Festival always reminds me of a dead tree overrun with fungus. It's impressive, grand, but petrified - the only real life nestling in the parasitic outgrowth of the Fringe, which is voluminous, but mostly trash. And though it's the big hitter of British festivals, with over 70 concert/opera items on the bill this year and Salzburg-status names like Brendel, Schiff, Abbado, Haitink, they're largely the same sort of names that surface annually in much the same sort of arch-conservative programmes. Many smaller, humbler festivals around are more imaginative, more attractive, and more welcoming in what they do.

The themes at Edinburgh this year are Smetana, Sibelius, Hugo Wolf, and Schiller: not that Schiller wrote a note of music, but as one of the pre- eminent men of letters in 19th-century Germany, he exercised considerable influence on the literary tastes of several generations of composers. Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Donizetti, Rossini, even Puccini, fashioned operas from his stage-plays. And his most determined musical admirer was Verdi, who based no less than four operas - Giovanna Duarco, I Masnadieri, Luisa Miller, Don Carlos - on Schiller, with a further half if you include the partial indebtedness of Forza del Destino. Edinburgh is offering the basic four. And most of the presentation is by the Royal Opera, Covent Garden which is no doubt pleased to be in residence in Scotland because, just at the moment, it has nowhere else to go.

The Don Carlos, which opened on Monday, is in fact the Luc Bondy production which played in London a couple of years ago; and then as now, it's a dull show, seizing on the austerity of Spanish court life under Philip II to justify bare, cheap design work which I could live with did it not look so cheap, and so unstylish: all too obviously plasterboard and polystyrene. The production follows suit. It plays like sixth-form Shakespeare, scruffily, with off-the-peg effects (snow, fire) to let you know it's theatre.

But the voices, thankfully, are good, with Karita Mattila at her most commandingly poignant as the hapless Elisabeth; Thomas Hampson in smouldering form as Posa; Feruccio Furlanetto darkly impressive as Philip II; and a wonderful new Eboli from German mezzo Violeta Urmana, who could be more vivacious in her Veil Song, but settles into as fine a "Don fatal" as you could ask.

And then, of course, there's Bernard Haitink in the pit - his first appearance since the heart surgery that took him, suddenly and worryingly, out of action several months ago. His absence was destabilising for the company - as if it didn't have enough problems - and the fact that he's back in business is clearly a relief all round. His line is magisterial - his orchestra and chorus do him proud - but with a noticeable absence of the cut-and-thrust of the concert-version Mefistofele he conducted at the Barbican just before he went into hospital. That was Haitink in a state of aerial excitement that we'd hardly ever seen before. I wonder if we will again.

The Royal Opera's other Schiller-based staging at Edinburgh this week was I Masnadieri, adapted from the author's first dramatic hit Die Rauber, which is also playing in the Festival. A rarity, it ranks among the lesser- rated Verdi scores; and Elijah Moshinsky's new production is a rescue attempt in the vein of his previous salvage work on Verdi's Stiffelio. But with Masnadieri it's a harder task; and as I said when I reviewed this show a few weeks ago - it premiered on the Royal Opera's tour to Baden-Baden - the combination of extreme narrative compression, emotional innocence and a contrived ending all weigh heavily against success.

Seeing it again, however, it seems like a stronger piece. Moshinsky's stage direction is superb, direct but elegant. Paul Brown's designs, based on a revolving glass screen, do their job with striking clarity. And the cast - the same as Baden-Baden - still turns around Dmitri Hvorostovsky in handsome voice as the villain, with Paula Deligatti all grace and assurance in the decorated lines (originally written for Jenny Lind) of the girlfriend.

Edward Downes, a master Verdian, conducts a score which he himself has pieced together from fragments in the Covent Garden archives. And it's good to see his achievement warmly recognised by a capacity audience. In Baden-Baden, where this Masnadieri opened a new 2,500-seat theatre, it played to empty seats; and I wrote at the time that it looked like a miscalculation to have built so big a venue in so small a town. Since then, the Baden-Baden theatre has gone bust, and its management has been dismissed; and this in Germany, the home of discipline and order. When you hear such things, they put our own Royal Opera's little ups and downs into their proper context. Lyric theatre is a messy business.

The rest of my Edinburgh week wasn't such a happy experience either. Sunday's opening concert of the Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts was unremarkable: essentially well-played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (fleshed out with what must have been the entire freelance brass and percussion community of northern Britain) but conducted without style or distinction by Donald Runnicles - someone the Festival regularly imports from America, where he conducts the San Francisco Opera, for no other reason I can see, beyond the fact that he was born in Edinburgh. The Berlioz Requiem is a book of wonders, heady with exotic feats of choral and orchestral writing - from the soaring eloquence of the way Berlioz sets a single word, "luceat", in the opening section, to the syncopated rhythmic kick of the "Lacrymosa". None of them came off in this performance.

Tuesday's piano recital at the Usher Hall was a disappointment too. The scheduled soloist, Richard Goode, had cancelled and been replaced by Alicia de Larocha: an iconic figure and established Festival favourite, but a shadow of her former self these days. Larocha still weaves poetry in long, cantabile legato lines, but there's no muscle in the tone, no fire in the articulation. The (short) programme she produced here - Chopin standards and some Spanish atmospherics - passed agreeably but quietly, with not a lot to say for itself.

But then, for dedicated Festival-goers, that was probably a relief; because the tenor Ian Bostridge's recital at the Queen's Hall, Tuesday morning, had so much to say, it was exhausting. His programme focused on contrasted settings of the poet Eichendorff by Schumann (the Op 39 Liederkreis) and Wolf, making the general point that Schumann's readings homed in on Romantic ardour while Wolf's went for whimsy. But that's not to suggest Wolf is simplistic; and the very complexity of his song-writing, its oblique half-statements of harmony and emotion, gives an artist like Bostridge plenty to play with.

In this case, he all but sucked blood from the texts, leaving no nuance unexploited. And there were times when the intensity became oppressive, when a casual line came swollen with neurotic petulance, out of proportion to its true significance. But otherwise I've no complaints: with strong support from Malcolm Martineau, whose stature among the post-Parsons generation of British accompanists grows ever greater, this was a high-impact recital, compensating (as Bostridge always does) for thin tone with stiletto-sharp attack. Unsettling for Morningside. Especially before lunch.

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