Critic David Kettle shares his top picks from this year’s Edinburgh International Festival opera programme
It might not be the busiest year for opera at the International Festival – director Fergus Linehan admitted as much at the EIF’s launch back in April, as well as hinting at more of a bumper opera year in 2017. But what 2016 might lack in raw numbers, it more than makes up for in sheer quality and profile.
At a relatively modest two-and-a-half hours, Das Rheingold serves as the introductory evening to Wagner’s monumental Ring cycle, and unveils the massive tetralogy’s mythical world of gods and giants, dwarves and dragons, launching the inexorable unfolding of its epic storyline as the sinister Alberich steals the Rhinegold from the daughters of the river, incurring the jealous wrath of the gods.
It’s given a concert performance in the Usher Hall by Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky Opera, with a fine cast of soloists drawn from the company’s ranks, including Vitalij Kowaljow, right, as Wotan, Ekaterina Semenchuk as Fricka, Mikhail Vekua as Loge and Vladislav Sulimsky as Alberich.
Gergiev has seen his fair share of controversy as a Wagner conductor – the Ring cycle he toured around Britain a few years back met with mixed reactions, as much for its confused staging as for anything to do with Gergiev’s music-making. But there’s no denying the sheer power and passion of Gergiev’s performances: he’s an electric presence on the podium, and his Rheingold looks set to be one of the highlights among the International Festival’s Usher Hall evenings.
Usher Hall, 15 August
Bellini’s Norma is this year’s flagship opera offering, announced way back in November and already virtually guaranteed full houses at the Festival Theatre. It is not at all hard to see why: the big draw is Cecilia Bartoli, one of classical music’s global superstars, and Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s production has been essentially created around her.
In a similar way to Christophe Honoré’s Così fan tutte (see below), it updates Bellini and Romani’s tragic tale of love, rejection and revenge among ancient Druids to far more modern times: the French Resistance struggling against Nazi occupation, with Norma concealing her illicit love for Pollione, chief of the German forces.
First unveiled at the 2013 Salzburg Whitsun Festival, which Bartoli directs, it has been called one of the great opera productions of the decade – as much for its musical innovations as for its emotional potency. Period instrument band I Barocchisti under Diego Fasolis plays a radical new edition of Bellini’s score, which goes back to the composer’s original intentions, restoring cuts and enriching the orchestration, and thereby reminding us just what a sophisticated composer he is.
And Bartoli appropriates what’s traditionally a soprano role – made iconic by Maria Callas back in the 1950s, most famously with stand-out aria “Casta diva” – for her lithe coloratura mezzo-soprano, with the historically informed justification that in Bellini’s time, it was vocal quality and prowess rather than voice range label that would match a singer to a role. Anyone lucky enough to have already bagged themselves a ticket looks to be in for a treat.
Festival Theatre, 5, 7 and 9 August