The Edinburgh International Festival opened on Friday with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra led by Sir Roger Norrington in a performance of Schumann's Das Paradies und die Peri.
A hybrid of opera and oratorio, the work follows Thomas Moore's epic poem Lalla Rookh, telling the story of a half-mortal, half-fallen angel, known as a Peri, who is desperately yearning to enter Paradise. The story takes us to the lands of Persia, and we must remind ourselves this is a 19th century vision of the exotic East. Even so, Schumann's music bears little resemblance to the Orient. Musically it is a simple work, but it was perhaps performed by the SCO with a little too much emphasis on this simplicity, leaving the piece lacking somewhat in drama.
However, what was most impressive in Friday night's performance were the multiple character changes in the vocal performances and how successful and believable they were. The soloists and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus led by Christopher Bell, captivatingly told the tale of the Peri, and in each part, offered 'tableaux vivants' that were descriptively lush.
The work began quietly with a mellow introduction by the orchestra, followed by mezzo-soprano Marie-Claude Chappuis introduction to the first scene. In contrast to Chappuis's pleasingly tranquil tone, soprano Susan Gritton as the Peri, exhibited passion and the right amount of tension, as she yearned for Heaven. Gritton continued throughout to play the Peri with an emotionally vulnerable and yet determined nature – a standout of the night.
Tenor Maximillian Schmitt provided narration throughout the story, other characters came and went, sang by Chappuis, soprano Lydia Teuscher, tenor Benjamin Hulett, and baritone Florian Boesch. All voices were rich in character and timbre, and amazingly without backdrop or stage setting, carried the story through its multiple scenes and landscapes. Most captivating, although short-lived, were the vocal quartets, where the soloists harmonised beautifully as they sang in unison and then slipped in and out, seamlessly flowing into one another.
Norrington conducted the work calmly, with simple but clean lines and very little fuss. However, he appeared a little indifferent at times; more emotional energy could have been exerted to encourage the SCO to reach deeper into the work.
But where passion was lacking in the instrumental performance, it could firmly be found in the vocals, particularly in those of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. The chorus also frequently switched character roles, and convincingly so. They entered strong, with fervour. They were overwhelmingly moving at the end of Part I with a fugal passage centred on the words 'Denn heilig ist das Blut', or 'Blood like this', as they harmonised with the vocal quartet. In Part II, the chorus became light and airy as the Nile Spirits. And once again they transformed into the Blessed Spirits at the end of Part III, showcasing their full sound, as they triumphantly brought the Peri’s story to a joyful end.
I initially thought that Schumann's oratorio was a curious choice for the opening concert of the Edinburgh International Festival, thinking that the rarely performed work would not be so familiar to the audience. But after some thrilling vocal performances, I left wishing that it would become a more frequent candidate for concert repertoire.
Photo: Susan Gritton
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