Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Peter Sellars' kinaesthetic vision of Lasso's Lagrime di San Pietro

On 24th May I594 just a few weeks before his death on 14 June, the elderly Orlando di Lasso signed the dedication of his Lagrime di San Pietro - an expansive cycle of seven-voice penitential madrigale spirituali, setting vernacular poetry on the theme of Peter’s threefold denial of Christ - to Pope Clement VIII.

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Donnerstag aus Licht

Stockhausen was one of the most visionary of composers, and no more so than in his Licht operas, but what you see can often get in the way of what you hear. I’ve often found fully staged productions of his operas a distraction to the major revelation in them - notably the sonorities he explores, of the blossoming, almost magical acoustical chrysalis, between voices and instruments.

David McVicar's Andrea Chénier returns to Covent Garden

Is Umberto’s Giordano’s Andrea Chenier a verismo opera? Certainly, he is often grouped with Mascagni, Cilea, Leoncavallo and Puccini as a representative of this ‘school’. And, the composer described his 1876 opera as a dramma de ambiente storico.

Glyndebourne presents Richard Jones's new staging of La damnation de Faust

Oratorio? Opera? Cantata? A debate about the genre to which Berlioz’s ‘dramatic legend’, La damnation de Faust, should be assigned could never be ‘resolved’.

Jean Sibelius: Kullervo

Why did Jean Sibelius suppress Kullervo (Op. 7, 1892)? There are many theories why he didn’t allow it to be heard after its initial performances, though he referred to it fondly in private. This new recording, from Hyperion with Thomas Dausgaard conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, soloists Helena Juntunen and Benjamin Appl and the Lund Male Chorus, is a good new addition to the ever-growing awareness of Kullervo, on recording and in live performance.

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Mahler: Titan, Eine Tondichtung in Symphonieform – François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles

Not the familiar version of Mahler's Symphony no 1, but the “real” Mahler Titan at last, as it might have sounded in Mahler's time! François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles present the symphony in its second version, based on the Hamburg/Weimar performances of 1893-94. This score is edited by Reinhold Kubik and Stephen E.Hefling for Universal Edition AG. Wien.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Verdi: Messa da Requiem - Staatskapelle Dresden, Christian Thielemann (Profil)

It has often been the case that the destruction wrought by wars, especially the Second World War, has been treated unevenly by composers. Theodor Adorno’s often quoted remark, from his essay Prisms, that “to write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric” - if widely misinterpreted - is limited by its scope and in a somewhat profound way composers have looked on the events of World War II in the same way.

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

<em>Lessons in Love and Violence</em>, Royal Opera House, London
12 May 2018

Lessons in Love and Violence: powerful musical utterances but perplexing dramatic motivations

‘What a thrill -/ My thumb instead of an onion. The top quite gone/ Except for a sort of hinge/ Of skin,/ A flap like a hat,/ Dead white. Then that red plush.’ Those who imagined that Sylvia Plath (‘Cut’, 1962) had achieved unassailable aesthetic peaks in fusing pain - mental and physical - with beauty, might think again after seeing and hearing this, the third, collaboration between composer George Benjamin and dramatist/librettist Martin Crimp: Lessons in Love and Violence.

Lessons in Love and Violence, Royal Opera House, London

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: The murder of the ‘Madman’, production image

Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey

 

It is shockingly exquisite. Following their archaeological investigations into the medieval past in Written on Skin, the pair have again delved into the historical archives: specifically, the chronicle of King Edward II’s obsessive and self-destructive infatuation with his French paramour, Piers Gaveston. Director Katie Mitchell meticulously and with microscopic focus show us how such love destroys the happiness of Edward’s wife, Isabella, and of his court and country. The resultant murders of the King’s lover, the King himself and, subsequently, his Machiavellian assassin, unroll with dreadful inevitability, before the ascension of his son restores ‘order’ to a riven realm.

Benjamin’s orchestral writing is characteristically but still astonishingly refined and precise. Bass-centred and hollow sonorities dominate: the echoing eeriness of resonant woodwind, suffused with pain and panic; the disconcerting strangeness of percussive twangs and bangs; harp-drumming that makes one’s nerves jangle. A prevailing low register characterises the vocal writing too, aiding textual clarity: the declamatory lines are masterfully delivered by the cast (there is not really anything that might be termed ‘melody’), and when I say I could hear every word, I mean it. Benjamin has been ably served by Crimp, who knows when to provide elongated vowels or a telling rhetorical-poetical utterance that can be musically memorialised. But, Benjamin must take double credit for such textual clarity, as discerning and judicious an orchestrator - like a painter he has surveyed a vast palette and selected just a few eclectic hues to unimaginably emotive effect - as he is orchestral ‘front-man’ with a baton in his hand.

Peter Hoare as Mortimer.jpgPeter Hoare (Mortimer). Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

Both human morals and musical hues sink low, which only serves to emphasise the glistening lustre of Barbara Hannigan who, as Isabel, soars with stunning sumptuousness and sheen. Similarly, the high-lying lucidness of tenor Samuel Boden Boy/Young King evinces a penetrative purity and vision which is woefully absent elsewhere in this poisonous court. Stéphane Degout’s ‘King’ (no identifier is given) is paradoxically eloquent and petulant, his faith in his ‘divine right’ imbuing his proclamations of centrality and invincibility with seemingly impenetrable power. Gyula Orendt sings with honeyed slickness as the quasi-abusive Gaveston. And, as Mortimer, Peter Hoare almost out-sings all, willing us to side with his ‘rational’ vision of patriotic equilibrium.

Barbara Hannigan as Isabel Stephen Cummiskey.jpgBarbara Hannigan (Isabel). Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

As the opera’s seven scenes unfold, Edward’s children - Boden’s ‘Boy’ and Ocean Barrington-Cook’s mute but expressive ‘Girl’ - watch all, ring-side spectators at a rivetingly horrific spectacle. And, we too are voyeurs, as Vicki Mortimer’s pristine, princely but clinical King’s Bedroom swivels to afford us a view from each of its four sides. Though Benjamin and Crimp eschew the third-person fussiness of Written on Skin - where characters announce their own words, ‘The Boy says …’ - Mitchell’s use of perspective creates a certain distancing, as from our bird’s-eye eyrie we watch this rancid world rotate, prey to our appetite for dissection and scrutiny.

Lessons in Love and Violence production image.jpgPhoto credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

There is nothing ‘medieval’ about the set, and at a time when the whims and egos of those in power plunge us ever deeper towards apocalyptic abyss, that seems fitting. One wall of the King’s bedchamber sports an imitation of an artwork by Francis Bacon, the artist who put pain into painting with works that foregrounded, savagery, agony and mortality. On another, there is a fish-tank, initially pulsing with aquamarine and emerald currents but drained of colour, to barren ash, following the murder of Gaveston. A show-case of gilt busts, statuary and artefacts attests to the luxurious licence that wealth brings, and which Isabella rubs in the faces of the populace in the second scene of the opera when she responds to their pleas of poverty and suffering by, à la Cleopatra, dissolving a pearl in wine. Nothing shines brighter than the crown, golden and glowing in its glass presentation box.

With such glory on show, why did I leave the Royal Opera House feeling a little dissatisfied? Movement director Joseph Alford frequently uses a quasi-digital slow motion which is entrancing, as it suspends time, but also diverting, for this distancing device seems to me to encapsulate one of the opera’s ‘problems’: there is no dramatic conflict, by which I mean there are no developing characters, evolving relationships, changing allegiances, and knotty issues to be explored, unravelled and resolved. The greatest ‘drama’ occurs in the instrumental interludes between scenes where the music introduces conversing voices in ways absent in the sung scenes. Essentially, we are introduced to a nasty bunch of characters at the start of the opera, and their nasty end is a forgone conclusion. It is beautifully depicted, in music and visually, but it is not ‘dramatic’.

Crimp describes the opera as a ‘slightly oblique examination’ of Christopher Marlowe’s play, Edward II, but there are echoes of the latter which, when displaced from their original context, lose their rationale. Crimp explains that what is really striking in Marlowe is that ‘at the heart of it there is a man who dies for and of love’, and that this inspired the first line of his libretto: ‘It’s nothing to do with loving a man, it’s love full stop that is poison.’ To this end, he borrows one of Marlowe’s most potent lines: when Marlowe’s Mortimer Junior asks, ‘Why should you love him whom the world hates so?’, Edward replies, ‘Because he loves me more than all the world.’ At this moment, the King’s honesty and guilelessness compel us to side with him. But, such empathy is significant because in the play our sympathies fluctuate. And, at this point Edward expresses, so simply, our human need for affection. Elsewhere he is deluded, irresponsible and destructive, but Edward’s final soliloquy when, with weary despair, he futilely yearns for a moment of comfort among his friends and poetically anguishes over the torments he has endured, pushes aside the empty bombast that has preceded; here, at last, Edward possesses an eloquence worthy of his divine right to rule. In the opera, there is no comparable variety or dialectic in the King’s musical utterances, and so the expression of love loses impact and dramatic relevance.

Stéphane Degout as King and Gyula Orendt as Gaveston.jpgStéphane Degout (King) and Gyula Orendt (Gaveston). Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

In the opera, Mortimer’s hateful vindictiveness towards Gaveston also lacks the sort of context that might introduce elements of ambiguity and play with our sympathies. In the play, the barons dismiss Galveston as a ‘night-grown mushrump’, but the Frenchman has a courtly sophistication which rebuts their coarseness; but in the opera Galveston is a quasi-abusive manipulator, and it is appropriate that Orendt returns as the controlling and heartless ‘Stranger’ - perhaps an echo of Marlowe’s Lightborn, an amoral mechanical murder-machine.

Marlowe was not interested in the ‘common man’; he ignored Holinshed’s account of Scottish plundering and a populace suffering from famine - possible motivation for the barons’ commitment to defence of the realm through dethronement or regicide - and focused on their personal, snobbish pique at Gaveston’s ‘common’ origins (not historically accurate). Such petty superiority makes us side with Edward for all his childish boorishness. But, in the opera there are no barons excepting Mortimer, and the populace is a shadow of grey suits bearing clip-boards. Where are the conflicting arguments that should test our sympathies?

The characterisation of Mortimer is equally problematic. Crimp retains Gaveston’s malicious inferences about Mortimer’s intent - he is a ‘snout’ poking up Isabel’s skirt - but Mortimer has to bear the weight of the court’s and country’s ‘reason’. Yet, rather than sliding from coherent patriotic arguments into impetuous self-aggrandisement, this Mortimer is a Machiavellian manipulator from the start. That said, while the execution of Mortimer at the end of Marlowe’s play, following so swiftly upon the murderer’s heroic avowals of unassailability and immunity, is dramatically necessary and satisfying, Crimp’s imagined scenario for Mortimer’s hubristic undoing is perhaps an even more pointed and painful outcome of his self-deluded profession of invulnerability: ‘ Maior sum quam cui possit fortuna nocere.’ (I am so great that Fortune cannot harm me)

Ocean Barrington-Cook as Girl and Peter Hoare as Mortimer .jpg Ocean Barrington-Cook (Girl) and Peter Hoare (Mortimer). Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

Crimp’s Isabel, too, seems lacking in psychological and emotional ‘layers’. When rejected by the King she dotes upon Mortimer, and we have a strong sense of his power over her, but the dramatic potency of the re-direction of the Queen’s affections relies on us believing in the veracity of her passion for husband in the first place, and the strength of her self-delusion that she can regain her husband’s love. Crimp and Benjamin show us Isabel’s delight in luxury, but not the strength of her marital love. In contrast, Marlowe’s Isabella rejects the jewels with which Edward bestows her as a reward for convincing the barons to agree to Gaveston’s return from exile, and pleads instead for ‘a kiss’ to revive ‘poor Isabel’.

The opera’s seven scenes do not unfold with the logic of a lesson-plan; rather they are power-point images which illustrate isolated stages on the protagonists’ journey to pain and purgatory. There is no interrogation of what love ‘is’, why human beings tolerate and execute violence, or how love and violence come to be so inextricably bound. At the close, the Boy/Young King has learned only the art of imitation: how to inflict cruelty, and to argue that the execution of inhuman brutality is in the name of justice and greater good. Has he learned self-awareness? How to love?

Lessons in Love and Violence is musically captivating, but dramatically perplexing.

Claire Seymour

George Benjamin: Lessons in Love and Violence
Libretto: Martin Crimp

A co-production with Dutch National Opera, Hamburg State Opera, Opéra de Lyon, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, and Teatro Real, Madrid.

King - Stéphane Degout, Isabel - Barbara Hannigan, Gaveston/Stranger - Gyula Orendt, Mortimer - Peter Hoare, Boy/Young King - Samuel Boden, Girl - Ocean Barrington-Cook, Witness 1/Singer 1/Woman 1 - Jennifer France, Witness 2/Singer 2/Woman 2 - Krisztina Szabó, Witness 3/Madman - Andri Björn Róbertsson; Director - Katie Mitchell, Conductor - George Benjamin, Designer - Vicki Mortimer, Lighting designer - James Farncombe, Movement director - Joseph Alford, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; 10th May 2018.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):