EDINBURGH FESTIVAL 97 / REVIEWS

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EDINBURGH FESTIVAL REVIEWS

Opera Ariadne auf Naxos

"Let's hope the opera nonsense doesn't get ballsed up," exclaims M Jourdain, Moliere's bourgeois anti-hero, as a performance of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos is planned.

Scottish Opera has chosen to stage the original 1912 version of this amazing piece, which is thus preceded by Le bourgeois gentilhomme, performed by actors in a free translation - free is the word - by Jeremy Sams. This form of the work has seldom been seen; the difficulty of assembling two companies, drama and opera, for its performance led Strauss and Hofmannsthal to revise it in 1916, removing the Moliere play, and that is the version we all know.

To hear the original is a revelation. Its chief feature is the greater integration of comic and serious, representation and "real life", vulgarity and sophistication. Sams's racy translation of the play stressed this. Suddenly one finds that the work has the irony, the levels of meaning, the mixture of art and life one expects in a Mahler symphony.

The new production is witty and lavish, full of clever sight-gags and elaborate props. Martin Duncan, the director, and Tim Hatley, designer, have set it in more-or-less modern times, though the operatic characters are in white-classical and the commedia figures are a cross between minstrel show and cabaret. The illusion of an expensive drawing-room gives way gradually to a baroque stage, full of painted clouds and dry ice.

The piece has one outstanding problem, which may have encouraged its revision. It is too long; Sams even puts in a bit of repartee about the composer being "a surgeon, who makes cuts for the health of the whole body". Well, he is right; it needs to be an hour shorter.

But it certainly deserves to be seen. As well as real comic actors - Sam Kelly is a droll Jourdain - there is an ideal cast of singers, including a real Zerbinetta. This is one of the hardest roles to cast in all opera, for it has spine-tickling coloratura, sympathy and pathos, and it needs a dancer and comedian as well. Lisa Saffer has everything, and also looks terrific. She almost steals the show from the Ariadne, Anne Evans, who sings heroically, sculpturally, transplanting her famous Bayreuth Brunnhilde into the role.

The adroit integration of comedy and epic is chiefly accomplished by the conducting of Richard Armstrong. He animates without hurrying, broadens without dragging, creating a perfect framework for the varied styles of singing. The SO orchestra are at their best, fluent and colourful.

The casting is spot on. The three nymphs - Strauss's "Rhinemaidens" - blend spiritually, lustrously; they are Helen Williams, Claire Bradshaw and Anna-Clare Monk. There is a light, buoyant Harlequin (David Stephenson), and John Horton Murray sings the part of Bacchus in a boyish Heldentenor.

Finally, on Wednesday night, the closing fireworks set off an alarm, and the audience left the theatre to be confronted by a row of fire engines. There could not have been a better example of the mingling of art and life; it added the finishing touch to an evening of almost perfect theatre.

Festival Theatre, tomorrow, 7.15pm, (booking: 0131-473 2000)

Raymond Monelle Dance San Francisco Ballet

The Playhouse audience was practically steaming with excitement before the curtain went up on San Francisco Ballet on Tuesday. They haven't danced in Britain since 1981 and 16 years is a long time in a company's life. Many changes have been wrought in the interim.

San Francisco's ballet company was founded in 1933 and is the oldest professional ballet outfit in the US. It has had its ups and downs - artistically and financially - but in 1985 the former New York City Ballet principal Helgi Tomasson took over as artistic director. Since then they have enjoyed rave reviews for their strong technique and wide and handsome repertoire. Unfortunately, the works selected to showcase the company in Edinburgh did not always do his achievements justice.

Of the two programmes on offer the first, with its two Balanchines, was by far the more popular and (for once) box-office instincts proved to be correct. It opened with the 1972 Stravinsky Violin Concerto. The many jumps are dashed off with so little fuss and preparation that the dancers seem to have been jerked from the floor by a length of elastic.

The evening closed with 1947's Symphony in C, which provoked the usual squeak of excitement when the audience got its first glimpse of 10 shimmering white tutus. Further thrills were generated by Yuan Yuan Tan in the adagio. Remarkable extensions and commanding balances contributed to a brilliant (if slightly inexpressive) performance.

The stale filling in this gourmet sandwich was Helgi Tomasson's Sonata, danced to Rachmaninov's soulful Sonata for Cello and Piano. In his eagerness to avoid a too obvious narrative, Tomasson has the seven dancers enact a scenario of romantic fulfilment and loss so vague and watery as to be without meaning entirely.

In the second programme, Tomasson indulged us with another of his works, Criss Cross, in which 24 dancers doodled on Avison's arrangement of Scarlatti and Schoenberg (after Handel) dressed in mildly 18th-century clothes. Balanchine had a genius for subverting classical expectations with unexpected movements, snatches of slang that both enlivened his idiom and threw into relief the beauty of the classical style. Tomasson doesn't seem to have inherited this gift.

The second programme also featured David Bintley's The Dance House, a hideously-dressed work about death in general and Aids in particular, danced to Shostakovich's Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings. Bintley's theme is too big for him but his treatment of it never crass. He draws a parallel between the grassy nature of flesh and the short life of the professional dancer. At the ballet's close Death takes a class and the dancers struggle to copy his swift enchainements before dropping to the floor.

The second programme's highlight is Mark Morris's Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes, created for American Ballet Theatre in 1988 and danced to Virgil Thomson's Piano Etudes. Morris's easy, unravelling turns and casually brilliant jetes are a sunny manifestation of the fractured gaiety of the music. The stage is filled with couples propelled by a curious sense of purpose - as if every rush across the stage is a short-cut to a better place. The San Francisco dancers handled Mark Morris very well but they were obviously just visiting; with Balanchine, they seemed more comfortably at home.

Louise Levene

Theatre Blue Heart

Blue Kettle, the second part of Caryl Churchill's dazzlingly theatrical double bill Blue Heart, must be the first play to use Enid Blyton's The Faraway Tree as a reference point. Derek, a 40-year-old man who is conning a series of susceptible women into believing they are his mother, visits his real mother in a geriatric ward. In the middle of this beautifully tender scene, he remembers his favourite childhood book, in which every time some children climbed a magic tree they visited a different land. It was a world bursting with delights and surprises, doubts and terrors, hopes and dreams.

Churchill's dramatic world is similarly full of possibilities. Unlike Blyton, however, her bold range is created via a supremely confident use of language and a pungent theatrical vocabulary. The form of the two interlocked plays is startlingly sophisticated yet leaves you wondering why no one has tried something so simple before. In Hearts' Desire, a father, mother and aunt are waiting for a daughter to arrive home after years in Australia. It's like a rapid dramatic version of the parlour game Consequences, with the characters constantly cutting back to the beginning and then supplying wildly different endings. At first you think you're in for a reinvention of Ionesco-style comic absurdity as the family indulge in soap opera argy bargy, but things turn increasingly surreal. One minute the audience is rocking with laughter at the sudden plunge into Agatha Christie - "It's nothing to do with any of us except that the body was found in our garden" - the next minute you're shocked into silence as the beautifully baleful Mary Macleod, as the elderly Maisie, chillingly reveals the terror of waking up in the night afraid of dying.

The second half refracts and dislocates language in exactly the same way the first part does to action. A tiny shock jumps through the audience as Jason Watkins, as Derek, appears to trip over a word, substituting "blue" for "start". Then the word "kettle" crops up unannounced. Gradually, these two words creep in and consume the dialogue to the point of almost complete breakdown.

These dramatic devices could be dismissed as a typically barren exercise in deconstruction were it not for the fact that Churchill uses them to such extraordinary emotional effect. The more "blue" and "kettle" crowd speeches the more we are pulled into seeing the depth of the character's feelings and the links between them and Churchill's governing themes.

Anna Wing is almost unbearably moving as the fiercely pragmatic 80-year- old blue stocking who remains unable to express emotion when meeting the man she believes to be her long lost child. Her performance is symptomatic of Max Stafford-Clark's scrupulous direction, which rivets every single moment to its emotional truth. His splendidly meticulous production is the perfect foil to the formal experimentation. Whether you're laughing at the sheer unab-ashed imagination of Chur-chill's vision or being caught short by its powerful emotional undertone, you realise that she has pulled off an exceedingly rare coup: she forces you to see that form and content are indivisible. In a climate where most playwrights think that structure and plot are the same thing and that compassion is a dirty word, watching Blue Heart is a captivating, heady pleasure.

Traverse Theatre, to 30 Aug David BenedictSan Francisco Ballet: first British appearance for 16 years Geraint Lewis

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