Wednesday, 2 September 2009


29/8/09, Festival Theatre (Edinburgh Festival)

3 hrs 45 mins. Handel's opera in a production for the Gottingen Festival directed by Doris Dorrie, who is apparently a well-known German novelist and film-maker and (these days) opera director, conducted from the harpsichord by Nicholas McGegan with around 30 musicians ranged all round him in the Festival Theatre's shallow pit.

Sheep, deer, naked dancers, Japanese costumes, shadow play, lighting that threw washes of colour over a white stage with black cloth wings: visually ravishing.

Admeto is dying. His wife Alceste volunteers to die in his place. He recovers and sends Ercole (Hercules) to bring her back from the Underworld. Meanwhile Antigona, who is loved by Admeto's brother Trasimede, makes a play for Admeto and he finds himself torn between love for her and for Alceste. Alceste returns in disguise, there is a predictable mix-up, until all is resolved and Antigona is paired up with T.

The singing had its ups and downs. Tim Mead as Admeto had the most beautiful counter-tenor; David Bates as Trasimede sounded totally out of his depth. Kirsten Blaise as the naughty temptress Antigona was a fine singer and entertaining actor (slapping away at her spurned lover Trasimede's horizontal sword as it rose towards the perpendicular while he sang "a ha ha"). Marie Arnet as Alceste had a lovely voice but lacked power (from where I sat somewhere round to the side at the front of the circle). Her dying aria was especially beautiful, sung in a huge white kimono, before she went behind a screen to expire; it rose to reveal spreading blood, represented by a red carpet gradually pulled outwards across the stage, and her spirit rising slowly from her body.

The spirt in question was the veteran butoh dancer Tadashi Endo, in long wig and white weeds, who also supplied the choreography. I'm beginning to get the hang of butoh, which seems to involve a lot of stylised and grotesque movement, white body paint, few if any clothes and much grimacing. This is the Wikipedia definition: "It typically involves playful and grotesque imagery, taboo topics, extreme or absurd environments, and is traditionally "performed" in white-body makeup with slow hyper-controlled motion, with or without an audience. But there is no set style, and it may be purely conceptual with no movement at all."

At the very start the ten dancers played furies, tormenting the dying Admeto: they looked for all the world like a bunch of Gollums. Later they attacked Hercules (William Berger, dressed in a fat suit to resemble a sumo wrestler) as he freed Alceste from Hell: he shouldered them, threw them and bellied them aside. Then he was tempted by naked dancers, thrusting them too aside with superhuman effort. Before that we'd seen them dressed as sheep in silly woolly costumes accompanying Antigona, a princess masquerading (for reasons never made clear) as a shepherdess. Later they played deer in a hunting scene, the men with magnificent antlers on their heads.

At the end of Act 1 I decided this production was definitely camp, but respectful, and the Japanese setting was plausible.

In Act 2 Admeto laments that he loves two women while two dancers, one dressed in white and one in black, drift across the stage behind him: they used at this point the whole stage, right to the back, and very impressive it is too, reputedly the largest in Britain. The act ends with showpiece arias for the two sopranos; Alceste's is accompanied by half a dozen naked dancers in see-through chiffon kimonos tempting him/her (for she is now dressed as a samurai warrior). That seemed inappropriate since what she is singing has to do with discovering whether he husband (not she) is faithful or not; but maybe the director's aim was just to plant a suggstion of "temptation" generally.

Act 3 concludes with a solo dance for Alceste's spirit. I never felt the production fully integrated the spirit (unlike the rest of the dancers, who were fine). Before that there was an ensemble song, and before that a beautiful duet for Admeto and Alceste as the lovers are reconciled; but it was undermined by some silly business as Trasimede flits around surreptitiously with a drawn sword plotting to murder his brother.

This was also the only act in which the prevailing Japanese aesthetic was undermined for some reason with European baroque elements: a painted backdrop of a garden, then two drops of baroque palace interiors with windows and arched doorways. They flew up suddenly and disappeared just before the triumphal conclusion. I couldn't see the point, though one reviewer suggested it may have been a way of highlighting the forced, artificial, "stagey" nature of the proceedings at this point.

Plausibility, as so often, wasn't one of the librettist's strong points. Antigona has been obsessively in love throughout with Admeto, at one stage wrapping herself in a giant cloth portrait of him hanging from the flies (she is dressed only in a black swimsuit affair at this point). At the very end she is suddenly, instantly persuaded to switch her affections to Trasimede, the man she has energetically spurned throughout. Bizarre.

It was a delight, after a succession of 50 minute fringe productions, to have something really meaty and substantial to get one's teeth into.

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