The Birgitta Festival takes place annually in a ruined convent near Piritta, on the coast to the east of Tallinn. The convent walls are still standing, but the fallen roof of the chapel is replaced for the festival season by a plastic canopy, and bleacher seating fills the nave. Access is through low stone archways and across the convent’s foundations, but once seated the sightlines are good and the sound (sometimes amplified) is acceptable.

© Heiti Kruusmaa
© Heiti Kruusmaa

Haydn’s The Creation is rarely performed as a staged work, but this interpretation by the energetic Israeli director and choreographer Ran Arthur Braun made good use of the scaffolding behind and above the stage to turn the performing space into something resembling the illuminated margins of a Blake manuscript, or the crowded ceiling of a frescoed Baroque chapel. The three soloists were flown from wires, both above the stage and down the length of the auditorium, maintaining their composure (and their intonation) while being winched up and whizzed along on zip-wires. Their costumes included 18th-century coat and breeches, embellished with multicoloured wings, while other performers (drawn from street-players, Parkour experts, breakdancers and fire-jugglers) cavorted at floor level.

Soloists, choir and orchestra were all impressive, and seemed unperturbed by the cavortings, under the musical direction of the Estonian conductor Risto Joost. The opening, as the orchestra and chorus wanders in darkness until the instruction “Let there be light” unleashes a great C major outburst of rejoicing. All the Baltic states are famed for their choruses, and the Latvia State Choir is outstanding in its capacity for coloration, tonal subtlety and sheer vocal beauty of sound. The text of von Swieten’s German was translated (on screens on either side of the stage) into Estonian and the original English of the first edition. I heard from a number of people that 18th-century English was beyond their capacities for using English as a second language, and I would recommend in future that a more straightforward, modern translation should be used.

© Heiti Kruusmaa
© Heiti Kruusmaa

Unimpeded by being flown on wires into the roof of the chapel, Juhan Tralla (tenor) gave an excellent performance of “Now vanished by the holy beams”, looking in his court attire as if he had been uplifted into heaven from some mundane ceremony, equipped with wings and sent on his way. Below, a series of tableaux unfolded, as the various elements of creation (fire, water, the earth) were all acted out by costumed dancers from the Stunt 360 troupe, a Danish group of acrobats and stage stunt-performers who came together as a recreational group and have subsequently appeared all over Europe.

The creation of Adam was particularly movingly acted out, by a Londoner who made a break-dance out of discovering he had hands, arms, legs and feet with which to move himself about the newly-invented world. Ran Arthur Braun’s choreography mingled with his stunt-directing in making each of these tableaux an effective mode of story-telling. These are skills the Israeli director has already shown in such productions as the recent WNO Peter Pan, in which the countertenor in the title role sang much of his material suspended in space.

The second half of Haydn’s masterpiece becomes a gentle pastoral, as it shows Adam and Eve enjoying pre-lapsarian bliss in Paradise. A globe of the world was flown down to the stage from the heights of the chapel roof, and juggled in a way that emphasised its vulnerability and fragility. Tralla and his Eve, Alfia Kamalova, sang of their love and hope. Milton’s verses, ably adapted by von Swieten, gave a muscular strength to the text, to which Haydn paid unparalleled attention in his setting. Altogether, this performance made an excellent case for allowing writing to be interpreted by the full forces of the musical stage.