IF Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in person didn't actually open this year's Edinburgh International Festival of the Arts - which has a decidedly Soviet tinge to it - then he did the next best thing. He sent a message on the importance of international understanding. This was read, in English and Russian, just before the Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre launched with brilliant intensity into the festival's opening concert of Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, and Tchaikovsky at the Usher Hall. It was also announced that this was the first ever live TV transmission from the West to the Soviet Union - quite a coup. The audience's applause was vigorous and not merely polite.
It was Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony that crowned that first evening, played with striking assurance. But also memorable and very Russian (if, perhaps, not entirely festive) were Mussorgsky's ``Songs and Dances of Death.'' Their thematic morbidity was given an emphatically dramatic performance by mezzo-soprano Irina Arkhipova.
A similar kind of extrovert dramatization of basic sentiment characterized ``The History of a Horse.'' With Chekhov's ``Uncle Vanya,'' this play by M.Rozovsky was brought to Edinburgh by the Gorky Theatre of Leningrad. Based on a story by Tolstoy, the drama is interwoven with music and song. The central figure is the old piebald horse Kholstomer, who recounts his life with its proudest and most humiliating times. At the end he is unceremoniously slaughtered - the final callous gesture of the human race that has continually exploited him. The role, which was created for him in 1975, is played with practiced sensitivity by Evgeny Lebedev. The horse is endowed with human speech, but nothing he says or sings in words has the articulateness of his often repeated, rending cry. It is the call of the owned and cruelly abused and stands for people no less than animals.
Though Lebedev's is a touching piece of acting, there was still something oddly constrained about it. The actor's passionate empathy was counterbalanced by what sometimes resembled a lack of involvement.
Russian contributions also include the Tbilisi State Puppet Theater from Georgia, and folk dancers from Archangel in the frozen North, not to mention Nureyev's program in ``Homage to Les Ballets Russes and Diaghilev'' danced by the Ballet Th'e^atre Fran,cais de Nancy.
Nevertheless, the international net is as usual spread far and wide. For instance, 1987 is the first year the festival can boast a ``resident orchestra'' - and this is from the United States, the Pittsburgh Symphony. The word ``resident'' is slightly misleading. The orchestra's presence lasts for only one of the three weeks (the festival continues through Aug. 31), giving five concerts to the Bolshoi orchestra's four. But members of it are also tutoring students in the region - an inspirational and educative role understood to be part of ``residency.''
The drama program (a particular strength under festival director Frank Dunlop) is, for the second year, called a ``World Theatre Season.'' It certainly deserves the title. Participants include Dublin's Gate Theatre playing ``Juno and the Paycock''; the Cameri Theatre from Tel Aviv; the Shanghai Kunju Theatre from China; a ``light satirical troupe'' from Japan called the Yume Noyuminsha Company; and the Raun Raun Theatre of Papua New Guinea.
The Berliner Ensemble, the theater of Bertolt Brecht, has come with ``The Caucasian Chalk Circle,'' a program of ``Brecht to Music,'' and a two-year-old production of Shakespeare's ``Troilus and Cressida.''
It was certainly strange trying to make connections between this version of the play in German and what might seem more familiarly Shakespearean to a British audience. Simultaneous translation helped in comprehension, but exacerbated the contrast. In semi-modern dress, one thing captured brilliantly was the state of rottenness in both the Greek and Trojan corners: far worse than Denmark. Shakespeare's proposition is the pointlessness of it all: Everyone involved in the famous war has simply forgotten what it was all about. The pretext of rescuing the kidnapped Helen is ridiculous: She is simply depicted as a stupid prostitute - a point driven to extreme absurdity by this Berlin version.
Cressida is played by the blond Corinna Harfouch with a brittle, hoydenish unease that alternates between what seems like modesty and love for Troilus and an aggressivenes that suddenly bursts out. This uncontrolled eagerness suggests early on that her sensuality will conquer her easily when she is exchanged for a Trojan prisoner and sent to the Greek camp. Like Helen, she simply becomes a harlot. Miss Harfouch's performance stands centrally, and the whole production echoes her peculiar combination of the comic and the foul. The comedy in the play becomes utterly satirical. The actors look as though they have stepped out of a political cartoon by Grosz or Dix.
Dance this year features Black Ballet Jazz from Los Angeles (immensely popular at the large Playhouse theater, though scarcely more ambitious, or subtle, than a gaudy summer show at the seaside). The National Ballet of Finland brings ``The Nutcracker,'' while the People's Republic of China presents ``The Soul of the Terracotta Army.'' This is a dance drama inspired by all those Emperor's Warriors unearthed near Xian in 1974.
For me one of the highlights midway through has been the resourceful Folkopera of Stockholm, returning, after last year's successful ``A"ida,'' with it buoyantly playful version of ``The Magic Flute.'' Marvelously inventive costumes and staging support this production's tendency to favor the Queen of the Night rather than her enemy, Sarastro. He is a feudal lord, cloaked and booted - a cold scientist intent on calculated societal ideals - his followers a gray band of technicians or dropouts. The Queen is a bird of paradise. Papageno the birdcatcher and his eventual match, Papagena, are bird-cheeky children of nature. The Queen's three ladies are like freedom fighters. Even the singing, youthful and exuberant, was a delight. The whole proceeding had the lightest possible touch.
Still to look forward to as I write are the fireworks; the AlteOper from Frankfurt with ``The English Cat,'' comic opera with dark undertones; the festival production of Schiller's play ``Maria Stuart,'' directed by Mr. Dunlop; veteran actress Wendy Hiller reminiscing about her work with George Bernard Shaw; and a new entertainment by the redoubtable Cleo Laine and John Dankworth.
If there had been time I'd like to have seen a Russian version of ``Hamlet'' that everybody is raving about. But you can't see everything at the Edinburgh Festival.