The Cherry Orchard, Edinburgh Festival Theatre

It's been called the finest Chekhov production within living memory and Brian McMaster, the Festival director, is on record as saying that when he first encountered it, it struck him as the greatest theatre he had seen to date, bar none. Peter Stein's Cherry Orchard has, however, been in existence, on and off, since 1989 and in Edinburgh, where it tonight makes its final appearance, it comes over as monumental but disappointingly unmercurial - and Chekhov without impulsive spontaneity is like, well, Torville and Dean without skates.

The beauty of the staging is, I should imagine, undimmed. Towards the end of the first act, for example, the curtains of the Gayev nursery are pulled back and there, behind the huge window at a heart-stopping tilt to the interior, is a vision of unearthly loveliness - the cherry orchard in profuse white bloom under early-morning sunshine. Well might Jutta Lampe's Ranyevskaya imagine for a moment that she sees the ghost of her mother walking through this other-worldly landscape.

A magical blurring of the objective and the subjective, the spectacle brings home to you just why the Gayevs can't bear to part with their orchard and perhaps modifies your sense of their irritating fecklessness and inertia. The downside of making the orchard so visually prominent is that, if you happen to be sitting in the dress circle, you are treated to the sight of stage hands uprooting and carting off the trees in preparation for Act 2 - the orchard farcically suffering its fate just a tad ahead of schedule.

Throughout, the staging has a wonderful spare imaginative precision. The three double communicating doors through which we espy the cavorting revellers in the party scene allows for a thrilling moment when, with brutal insouciance, a line of high-spirited dancers burst through the downstage room where Ranyevskaya is grieving at the loss of the estate.

But, unlike a recent French-Romanian Three Sisters that ended with Natasha giving birth to the Soviet Army, this Cherry Orchard does not let hindsight inflict too much foresight on Chekhov's play. Having bought the very estate on which his forefathers were serfs, Daniel Friedrich's excellent Lopakhin staggers round in a very human daze of embarrassment and triumphalist elation. One moment, he's pulling his coat over his head like a child who wants to be "invisible", the next he's asserting ownership by crashing drunkenly into walls and cavalierly knocking down candelabras. Only at the very end does his exasperation with the Gayevs suddenly look drained of its former affection.

So what am I complaining about? Simply that too much of the production is willed and mechanical: well nigh all of the physical farce suffers from the deadly deliberateness of actors remembering to have accidents. The mixed moods are often leaden with calculation. Take those drunken hiccups that here puncture, with humour-free persistence, the poignant meditative silence that descends for what feels like for ever over the Gayev household as they sit on their luggage waiting to depart.

I note that Roland Schafer played the upstart Frenchified footman Yasha at the 1989 premiere. He's getting a bit long in the tooth to be playing a young man on the make now. To keep the age differential, the ancient retainer Firs would have to be presented pickled, Damien Hirst-style, in a cabinet. How I wish I'd seen this production in its first flush of youth. Final performance: 7pm tonight. Booking: 0131-473 2000

Paul Taylor


Die Walkure Act 3, Usher Hall

Brian McMaster, the Festival director, must be thanking his stars for an extraordinary run of good luck. Many of the events have been sell-outs, and there has been a run of warm, sunny weather, unusual for Scotland, with a perfect clear evening for the Fireworks Concert. Even apparent misfortunes have been turned to the Festival's advantage. First, the loss of the Royal Opera's production of Macbeth led to a concert performance that was, after all, one of this year's great occasions. Next, Bryn Terfel, one of the biggest stars in this year's pantheon, fell ill, putting Thursday's concert performance of Act 3 of Wagner's Die Walkure into doubt. Luckily John Tomlinson, Bayreuth's greatest Wotan of recent times, was secured to replace him. And this led to another revelation, a vision of the father- god that was towering, vivid, and essentially personal. It was one of those performances that ran into a massive wall of applause and cheering at its close.

It was not merely that Tomlinson was able to repeat his Bayreuth triumph. He gave us an essentially new Wotan, less the tender father moved to grief by a need to punish, than a desperate, panicked figure, almost paranoiac in his misery. Where Hans Hotter - and Tomlinson himself, once upon a time - melted into affectionate nostalgia ("Wunschmaid warst du mir," "You were my wish-maiden," he says to Brunnhilde), this new Wotan sang with savage irony, leading to the most brutal mockery as he consigned her to any man who might want her, spitting out the harsh consonants of the stabreim. Finally, his tender farewell to the lost daughter was tinged with wretchedness: someone freer than I shall have her, "freier als ich, der Gott", gasped breathlessly in a last hopeless surrender. It somehow captured all the sadness in the world.

Jane Eaglen ought to have been the perfect foil for this, for her Brunnhilde, seen in Glasgow and Chicago, was always human, soft, womanly; her purity of tone, pearly and sweet in soft passages, used to rise to an electric brilliance in the high register. But this was not Eaglen's best night. The seductive tenderness was still there, but low notes sounded oddly covered, and there was insufficient breadth for her last words of defiance, the orchestra clamouring to second her angry taunts. There was still plenty of woman in this interpretation, but not much valkyrie.

The other singers were astonishingly good: eight rousing valkyries, and a Sieglinde (Adrianne Pieczonka) who could have taken over the part of Brunnhilde at a moment's notice, and whose tone, indeed, somewhat resembled Eaglen's. The conductor, Antonio Pappano, is an exhilarating new kid on the Wagnerian block. He puts aside the traditional interest in expressive detail, leitmotiv, shape and contour, in favour of an impetuous excitement and a tonal splendour which suited the "Ride of the Valkyries" well. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra usually avoided being pulled off their feet. A night for fireworks, indeed.

Raymond Monelle

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