Two sides of the human condition

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It is hard to tell whether Jonathan Mills intended to draw a thematic link between his first two productions as director of the Edinburgh International Festival.

If he did, he was very quiet about it in a welcoming speech that referred to the glories of the past – the festival is celebrating its 60th birthday – but made no mention of the present or the future. Maybe Mills felt he had done enough of the latter in a series of combative interviews before Friday night’s opening concert: he threatened to walk out on his five-year contract if the powers-that-be didn’t come up with more subsidy to maintain Edinburgh’s international reputation.

Of course, as Mills well knows, it’s the art that does the talking, and these two works – one barely 50 years old, the other written exactly 400 years ago – spoke far more eloquently than he could ever do. Unlike his predecessor, Brian McMaster, a manager and enthusiast, Mills is a composer and intellectual: there’s a fine thread of curated ideas running through his programme, with the Orpheus story at its heart. The link between Candide and L’Orfeo may not be obvious but the more you think about it, the more it exists.

As befits the first great opera, written by Monteverdi for the Mantuan court in 1607, L’Orfeo explores the human condition and tries to make sense of it. Leonard Bernstein’s Candide covered exactly the same territory in the mid-1950s – in similarly fantastical vein but in much better humour. Both works tell us that, however hard we cling to the chimera of Elysium/Eden, the world is not made of “sugarcake”. “Have you not realised that in this life no pleasure is lasting?”, Apollo admonishes a chastened Orpheus in Monteverdi’s closing scene, while Candide sends us away with the moral that “good and bad and joy and woe are woven fine”.

It’s just the tone that’s different: Monteverdi’s “fable in music” concludes that we all have it in us to triumph over life’s obstacles, whereas Bernstein’s “comic operetta” is a piss-take of the philosophy of optimism from first note to last.

In both cases the introduction of common sense at the end is a bit too abrupt to be dramatically convincing. What really matters is getting there, and in Edinburgh the means more than justified the ends. Candide got the festival off to a spanking, upbeat start. This semi-staged performance proved that Bernstein’s score is good enough to work on any terms, providing it’s done with style. Based on his final two-act version, but with much livelier tempi and a witty updating of the spoken narrative, it showed how dependent the work is on a commanding Narrator/Pangloss – a mammoth master-of-ceremonies role .

Thomas Allen rose to the challenge magnificently, surrounded by a cast that understood the value Bernstein put on entertainment. Matthew Polenzani was the sweet-voiced Candide, Laura Aikin a pert Cunegonde, with Kathryn Harries, Keith Lewis and Jennifer Johnston each making a mark in supporting roles. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus, more voluminous than anything Bernstein ever envisaged, remained light on its feet. And Robert Spano, conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, led us to believe the music of Candide goes considerably deeper than the content.

Gilbert Deflo’s staging of L’Orfeo, imported from Barcelona, was little more than a concert in faux-historical costume: the pictorial aesthetic was quaint, the choreography a sort of generic skipping, the acting largely stationary. There were no great voices; the Orpheus, Furio Zanasi, lacked charisma. The production nevertheless cast a spell, thanks to the premium it placed on Monteverdi’s limpid music, the immaculate calibration of the choruses and the sincerity of Zanasi and other principals. The presiding intelligence was Jordi Savall, who generated a light-footed rhythmic undertow. Here was a performance (repeated tonight and tomorrow) that added up to far more than the sum of its parts. Will the same be true of Jonathan Mills’s first festival?

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