Limitations of Space
By DAVID CAIRNS THE thirteenth Edinburgh Fes- tival has a curious air of am- biguity about it. This is not a Morningside way of saying that in the Stockholm version of A Masked Ball the king is a queen, but refers to the con- trasts of perfunctoriness and imagination in the choice of festival fare. When the Lord Provost introduces the official pro- gramme with some really rich humbug about 'Edinburgh as a gracious hostess,' despite the financial difficulties inherent in a venture of this nature,' idealism and integrity,' and 'Emerson was of the opinion that it was never in the power of any man or community to call the Arts into being,' we might well conclude that, in the immor- tal words of Walter Mitty, `coreopsis has set in.'
But in the second week at least the Festival sat up and jerked into life with spasms of alarm- ingly international vigour. There was the first performance outside Sweden Of Karl-Birger Blomdahl's space opera Aniara; and on the pre- vious evening there was Colin Davis's superb con- cert with the London Mozart Players. I cannot remember a better performance of a Stravinsky work than Mr. Davis's of the Danses Con- certantes, a masterpiece of the 1940s which seems to include the whole of The Rake's Progress by implication. Mr. Davis brings out, as few con- ductors do; that physical quality of humour and musical practical-joking which is one of the qualities that make Stravinsky a true heir of the eighteenth century, and which is largely ignored in modern performances of both classical and neo-classical works; but he combines it, and impeccable rhythmic poise, with an unusual beauty of melodic line (and Danses. Concertantes is a living refutation of the charge that Stravinsky has no power of melody) and an exact placing of sonorities that delight the sense with their in- credible freshness. The same complete grasp of the constituents of style was shown even more remarkably in a tremendous performance of the 'Jupiter' Symphony. It is for such things that composers write and festivals exist.
Aniara, performed with intense conviction by the Stockholm Royal Opera, has had a rather wary and lukewarm reception in Edinburgh. I cannot agree with this. Of course it has flaws, but they do not matter too much. Some of them are inherent in the opera's setting—the journey of a spaceship, carrying eight thousand men and women to Mars from an annihilated Earth, which is accidentally steered off course and condemned to voyage through endless void. The source is an epic by the Swedish poet Harry Martinson, who uses the fate of the Aniara as 'a pretext for pre- senting a vision of our own day and age,' in the course of his story examining many facets of human society : blindly unswerving totalitarian regimes, mushroom sprouting of religious sects, the rise of new totems, the huge weight of habit, the adaptability of the species and the stubborn, imperious instinct of joy (embodied in the Papa- geno-like figures of Sandon the fool and Daisi Doody the dancing girl), the nostalgia for a lost earthly paradise, the despair, the recognition that they are 'of a race which demanded everything and got it,' the blank immensity of death—all the commonplaces of allegory whose meaning science fiction has boosted into a brand-new literature of ideas.
In choosing from this mass of material Blom- dahl's librettist, Erik Lindegren, has sometimes fallen between two stools. We get just enough glimpses of certain themes to want to see more. The existence of a dictatorship on board the Aniara is touched on but not fully explored; Isagel, the woman pilot who symbolises 'abstract beauty,' remains a shadowy figure, but her danc- ing monopolises the stage during most of two scenes. Another criticism to which Aniara is open is that the dramatic tension of the first act sags in the second. In the first we get the imposing choral lament for earth which man, the 'King of Ashes,' has destroyed; the racy midsummer eve celebrations of the passengers which are suddenly interrupted when the Aniara is thrown off course; the beautiful monologue of the chief astronomer likening the ship's progress to a 'little bubble in the glass of God's spirit'; and the scene in which Mima, a kind of mechanical Collective Uncon- scious that reflects impressions from remotest space and time, reveals to the horrified passen- gers (thrOugh tape recordings) a vision of the .destruction of the cities ,of earth. By contrast, the second act is a series of unconnected, static vignettes of the gradual decay and extinction of all life on board and a deepening twilight of futility which, is shot through in fitful gleams by the vague discovery by a blind poetess and her followers that 'the only universe they can gain is in themselves.' It has moving moments, but as The culminating half of a drama in the theatre it comes as a falling-off.
Yet, as a whole, and in the theatre, Aniara makes an assured and powerful impact. The situ- ations, like the music, may not develop in a tradi- tional operatic way, the characters may be depersonalised, and people's reaction to events may be described in general rather than indi- vidual terms; but it remains opera through and through, not transplanted oratorio. One can only think with amused pity of critics who make fun of names like Mima and Daisi Doody, as if the poet had chosen them precisely for their Eng- lish associations (the Swedes might as well retort —except that they would be too civilised to dream of doing so—that a piece of criticism was laugh- able because, say, 'Cardus' was Swedish for an old turnip). At a more adult level, I do not see how the appeal of the work can be seriously denied. Much has been made of the cosmic sym- bolism. But what gives Aniara its tremendous immediacy is that the setting of the symbol itself impinges pressingly on the listener's imagination. Images of space travel and universal carnage arc no longer remote; it only remains to see whether the one would be ready to salvage what was left from the other. Space becomes symbol not only of the 'spiritual void' through which modern man journeys but of the vast uncertainty which phy- sically overhangs the future of the race. Aniara seems to me, with all its faults, a strong and moving statement of this theme. To Blomdahl's distinguished and often beautiful music, and the other operas in Stockholm's Edinburgh repertory, I shall come back next week.