A Tour Through the World's Art

Edinburgh Festival draws host of international musicians, actors, and dancers

ATTENDING Edinburgh's International Festival of the Arts parallels, in certain ways, the experience of being on an organized tour: If it's Tuesday, it must be Rudolf Nureyev; if it's Friday, it's Seiji Ozawa ... or was that Yo-Yo Ma? Of course, many of the festivalgoers are tourists, and Edinburgh becomes a surging sea of cosmopolitanism in late August and early September each year.

``International'' the festival certainly is. This year there was theater from the United States, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Australia, India, England and (naturally) Scotland. There were orchestras from Moscow, London, Rotterdam, Berlin, San Francisco, Japan, Scotland (naturally) - and especially Czechoslovakia, since 1990 is the first in a special two-year celebration of the arts of that recently democratized country.

This year also happens to be the centenary of the birth of Czechoslovak composer Bohuslav Martinu. The festival includes two performances of his surreal opera ``Julietta'' and a comprehensive list of concert works.

The Martinu Centenary Concert at the Queen's Hall laid particular emphasis on works he had written for the harpsichord, with or without other instruments. Although he was clearly attracted by the Baroque associations of the instrument, his rhythms belong to the 20th century; so there is an interesting cross-fertilization of old and new in these works.

Harpsichordist Zuzana Ruzickova, as the soloist, brought a combination of intensity and workmanship to bear on this energetic but strangely unpassionate music. Ms. Ruzickova seemed very reluctant to personally accept her due applause, preferring to share it equally with the Czech pianist Rudolf Firkusny, who performed with her, and ensemble called the Czech Nonet.

A performer who had no such retiring modesty was the Spanish mezzo-soprano Teresa Berganza. With the engaging professionalism of an old hand, she launched into no fewer than six encores at her Usher Hall concert - and even then the applause refused to die. Her encores - including Mozart, Carmen, Respighi, and a hilarious ``under-the-influence'' drinking song - tended to make one forget her accomplished performance in the programmed part of the evening.

But the taste one took away was that of a voice of astonishing range and purity emitted with the effortless ease of birdsong, a singing capacity so under control that it never squanders its reserves and keeps springing surprises.

THE performance of another woman at this festival also sticks in the mind: actress Honor Blackman - no longer the assertive blond heroine of the '60s TV show ``Avengers'' - submerges herself in the role of Yvette Guilbert, a turn-of-the-century Parisian caf'e-concert singer, who introduced a fresh wit and wickedness to that genre. If Guilbert was ``immortalized'' in a certain manner by Toulouse-Lautrec's caricatural portraiture, what Ms. Blackman's performance made impressively clear was that Guilbert was a much more rounded character than Lautrec's fin-de-si`ecle vision of her suggests.

Blackman's portrayal describes (from her memoirs) Guilbert's rise from poverty, her Parisian triumph, her travels, her private-house performances, her encounters with such diverse figures as Sarah Bernhardt, George Bernard Shaw, and the Prince of Wales, as well as her desire to grow out of the low-life nightclub wit that had given her songs such spikey popularity, turning determinedly to religious songs and early French folk songs.

Guilbert's analysis of a singer's art (culled by Blackman from a textbook she wrote) becomes almost a solemn lecture, and the entertaining side of her - and of Blackman's remarkable performance - is tempered by thoughtfulness. Overall, Blackman's evocation is so vivid that you feel you've met the live Guilbert.

You feel something similar after a session with Spike Milligan, veteran comedian of British radio's ``Goon Show'' - but that's a story for another time. Suffice to note that this was his first appearance at the festival, albeit on the ``Fringe,'' a grouping of events that runs concurrently with the main festival, and that his less serious poetry often owes something to Edward Lear.

Lear was the subject of an entire presentation by Nicholas Parsons, a BBC quiz host. He explored this artist and nonsense-writer's solemn and sad, as well as his humorous, side. His tribute was well-turned and respectful except that, for some reason, he added some asides of his own to Lear's Nonsense Recipes (spoofs on Mrs. Beaton's cookery book). There was no call for this. They stand up just as Lear wrote them in all their splendid Victorian silliness. Parsons warned us that Lear's famous limericks weren't funny at all, or meant to be. So we listened dutifully - and then found ourselves laughing anyway.

TWO rather different sorts of ``Lear'' are likely also to be remembered from this festival, both, in a manner of speaking, by Shakespeare. The first was a pretty straight production by the (British) Renaissance Theatre Company, towards the end of a long international tour. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, this ``Lear'' took the play head on at a fierce pace, and pointed up its interrelated themes of generation-warfare distinctly and dramatically (though the ``realistic'' storm, suddenly turned on like a giant bath-tub shower, was a grave mistake in the staging).

Branagh's wife, Emma Thompson, played a misshapen, clown-faced Fool of no known sex, but it was Lear himself who stood out. The sinned-against monarch was invested with furious authority by Richard Briers. This was a doubly impressive rendering of the part because Briers is a popular TV situation-comedy actor who has rarely been given his head in any serious role.

The other ``Lear'' was a Kathakali (Indian dance theater) version, replete with mind-boggling make-up and costumes, much accelerated drumming, manifold gesturing and facial exercising. One could admire it all rather distantly, but - well - although it used no language but the visual, it still remained a foreign language. Come to think of it, rob ``Lear'' of words, and you really haven't got much of a drama left at all. A theme for a good pantomime perhaps.

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