The Edinburgh Festival's Half-Century

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Actors with painted faces recite Shakespearean soliloquies in the streets, fire eaters stage dangerous stunts, acrobats perform somersaults in front of astonished passers-by and the sound of bagpipes fills the air and merges with the noise of traffic and pedestrians. This can only mean one thing -- the Edinburgh International Festival is in full swing. Nowhere else is a festival so all-pervading that it seems to take over the whole life of the city. The 1997 festival, which marked former Welsh National Opera director, Brian McMaster's sixth year in the hot seat, was a particular cause for celebration as it was the fiftieth anniversary of what has now become the largest arts festival in the world, attracting a truly diverse mix of music, dance and drama. The unique position the festival has carved out for itself in the cultural calendar was reflected in the record number of corporate sponsors and donors and, in this, its birthday year, Edinburgh looked back over the fifty festivals gone by, with performances of productions of just a few of the many world premieres and festival commissions that have taken place, along with re-creations of some of the seminal events in the festival's history.

The most eagerly awaited event at the festival was the Royal Opera, Covent Garden's production of Platee by Jean-Philippe Rameau. choreographed and directed by Mark Morris. The show opens with drunks in a vineyard: a Bacchanal that announces the birth of comedy. But in this version you see a neighbourhood bar, quite like the 1930s. quite like New York, with a policeman, an artist, a showgirl who has just finished work and a bartender. There is a satyr at the bar. It is very late but nothing is surprising at three o'clock in the morning in Hell's Kitchen in New York. But just as your heart drops at the prospect of spending a few hours in this seedy atmosphere you are magically transformed into a more traditional fantasy location where the action unfolds. The witty and fast moving plot concerns a vain, silly and comical wood nymph -- a creature of the marshes -- who is made the dupe of the gods in settling a quarrel between Juno and Jupiter, married, suspicious of each other and perpetually at loggerheads. This baroque work has one of the most spectacular and sumptuous scores of eighteenth century opera and this is given full rein in Nicholas McGegan's vigorous and muscular conducting. Curiously Platee was written for a real wedding, when the French Dauphin married a Spanish princess at Versailles in 1745. Morris has brought a striking visual quality to this parodic opera-ballet -- the stage is full of imaginative special effects such as a fountain springing to life from a dead pond and Mercury descending from the heavens in a large basket, while the fabulous costumes by the couturier Isaac Mizrahi perfectly, capture the mood of the piece. Furthermore the dancing has a freshness and originality lacking in many dance productions. But the biggest triumph of the evening belongs to French high tenor Jean-Paul Fouchecourt who sings beautifully and is heart-rending in the drag title role of the frogwoman. A truly exhilarating and entertaining show.

It is an unusual combination: Greek myth with French comedy, Strauss opera with Moliere play, Scottish opera with Nottingham Playhouse. libretto in German, scripted in French, and acted in English. But this cross-border excursion was brought together by conductor Richard Armstrong and director Martin Duncan in Ariadne auf Naxos, also at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre. This original (1912) and very rarely staged version of the opera was performed at the festival in 1950, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. It was originally conceived by Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal as an operatic divertissement, to be performed in an abridged version of Moliere's comedy, for which Strauss wrote incidental music. I found the integration of the play into the opera an uneasy one: characters in the play appear in a variety of modern and period costumes, the comic playing is exaggerated and drained of every last ounce of humour, while the opera itself (which doesn't begin until two hours into this almost four hour production) has commedia dell'arte characters colliding with eighteenth century operatic stereotypes. …