August 15, 2009 / 2:11 PM / 10 years ago

Edinburgh Fest opens with swipe at Scots history

EDINBURGH (Reuters Life!) - The Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) opened with a provocative oratorio that lionizes the general who massacred Highland clansmen and ended Bonnie Prince Charlie’s bid for the British throne.

George Frederic Handel’s “Judas Maccabaeus” — which tells the tale of Duke of Cumberland, the 1746 battle of Culloden and the triumph of the House of Hanover over the Stuarts — won warm applause from a packed audience at the official opening of the EIF in the city’s Usher Hall on Friday night.

But the doggerel verses by the composer’s collaborator, an Anglican vicar, left something to be desired and there had been questions as to whether the piece was appropriate for a Scotland celebrating a “homecoming year” for the Scottish Diaspora.

Despite the global recession, the international festival and the parallel book festival, which opened on Saturday, the free-wheeling Fringe and the military tattoo are looking to a lucrative month.

EIF offerings range through Richard Wagner’s opera “The Flying Dutchman” by the Hamburg State Opera, a staged production of St Kilda about the tiny group of islands off the Scottish west coast in Gaelic, French and English, and works by companies from Australia and Singapore. There is a wide range of theater, music, dance and debate.

EIF’s Australian director said the festival aimed to “inspire discussion and debate.”

German-born Handel established himself in 18th century London as a propagandist for the Hanoverian dynasty that came to the British throne in 1714. The Jacobite uprising of 1745-46 sought to oust the Hanoverian George II in favor of Charles Edward Stuart.

The rebels were defeated, Prince Charles fled to France, and the Hanoverians were firmly on the British throne.

Judas Maccabaeus, a Biblical Israelite warrior hero, was used to portray the English mastermind of the Jacobites’ defeat, George II’s younger son, the Duke of Cumberland — known in the Scottish Highlands as “Butcher Cumberland.”

It includes the music and lines for “See, the conquering hero comes! Sound the trumpets, beat the drums.”

The oratorio also resonates in the 21st Century with a movement in Scotland to end its 300-year-old union with England.

The Scotsman newspaper’s reviewer Kenneth Walton said the production “sparkled in many ways, due entirely to the quality of the cast,” with American tenor William Burden in the role of Judas Maccabeus.

“A sparkling slice of Handel, let down by his dud lyrics,” said the headline.

The book festival running to August 31 brings together some 750 authors from around the world at more than 700 events.

“The book festival is a cauldron of debate that reflects what’s going on in the larger culture,” said its guest director Richard Holloway.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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