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

ETO Autumn 2020 Season Announcement: Lyric Solitude

English Touring Opera are delighted to announce a season of lyric monodramas to tour nationally from October to December. The season features music for solo singer and piano by Argento, Britten, Tippett and Shostakovich with a bold and inventive approach to making opera during social distancing.

Love, always: Chanticleer, Live from London … via San Francisco

This tenth of ten Live from London concerts was in fact a recorded live performance from California. It was no less enjoyable for that, and it was also uplifting to learn that this wasn’t in fact the ‘last’ LfL event that we will be able to enjoy, courtesy of VOCES8 and their fellow vocal ensembles (more below …).

Dreams and delusions from Ian Bostridge and Imogen Cooper at Wigmore Hall

Ever since Wigmore Hall announced their superb series of autumn concerts, all streamed live and available free of charge, I’d been looking forward to this song recital by Ian Bostridge and Imogen Cooper.

Henry Purcell, Royal Welcome Songs for King Charles II Vol. III: The Sixteen/Harry Christophers

The Sixteen continues its exploration of Henry Purcell’s Welcome Songs for Charles II. As with Robert King’s pioneering Purcell series begun over thirty years ago for Hyperion, Harry Christophers is recording two Welcome Songs per disc.

Treasures of the English Renaissance: Stile Antico, Live from London

Although Stile Antico’s programme article for their Live from London recital introduced their selection from the many treasures of the English Renaissance in the context of the theological debates and upheavals of the Tudor and Elizabethan years, their performance was more evocative of private chamber music than of public liturgy.

Anima Rara: Ermonela Jaho

In February this year, Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho made a highly lauded debut recital at Wigmore Hall - a concert which both celebrated Opera Rara’s 50th anniversary and honoured the career of the Italian soprano Rosina Storchio (1872-1945), the star of verismo who created the title roles in Leoncavallo’s La bohème and Zazà, Mascagni’s Lodoletta and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

A wonderful Wigmore Hall debut by Elizabeth Llewellyn

Evidently, face masks don’t stifle appreciative “Bravo!”s. And, reducing audience numbers doesn’t lower the volume of such acclamations. For, the audience at Wigmore Hall gave soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn and pianist Simon Lepper a greatly deserved warm reception and hearty response following this lunchtime recital of late-Romantic song.

Requiem pour les temps futurs: An AI requiem for a post-modern society

Collapsology. Or, perhaps we should use the French word ‘Collapsologie’ because this is a transdisciplinary idea pretty much advocated by a series of French theorists - and apparently, mostly French theorists. It in essence focuses on the imminent collapse of modern society and all its layers - a series of escalating crises on a global scale: environmental, economic, geopolitical, governmental; the list is extensive.

The Sixteen: Music for Reflection, live from Kings Place

For this week’s Live from London vocal recital we moved from the home of VOCES8, St Anne and St Agnes in the City of London, to Kings Place, where The Sixteen - who have been associate artists at the venue for some time - presented a programme of music and words bound together by the theme of ‘reflection’.

Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny explore Dowland's directness and darkness at Hatfield House

'Such is your divine Disposation that both you excellently understand, and royally entertaine the Exercise of Musicke.’

Ádám Fischer’s 1991 MahlerFest Kassel ‘Resurrection’ issued for the first time

Amongst an avalanche of new Mahler recordings appearing at the moment (Das Lied von der Erde seems to be the most favoured, with three) this 1991 Mahler Second from the 2nd Kassel MahlerFest is one of the more interesting releases.

Paradise Lost: Tête-à-Tête 2020

‘And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven … that old serpent … Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.’

Max Lorenz: Tristan und Isolde, Hamburg 1949

If there is one myth, it seems believed by some people today, that probably needs shattering it is that post-war recordings or performances of Wagner operas were always of exceptional quality. This 1949 Hamburg Tristan und Isolde is one of those recordings - though quite who is to blame for its many problems takes quite some unearthing.

Joyce DiDonato: Met Stars Live in Concert

There was never any doubt that the fifth of the twelve Met Stars Live in Concert broadcasts was going to be a palpably intense and vivid event, as well as a musically stunning and theatrically enervating experience.

‘Where All Roses Go’: Apollo5, Live from London

‘Love’ was the theme for this Live from London performance by Apollo5. Given the complexity and diversity of that human emotion, and Apollo5’s reputation for versatility and diverse repertoire, ranging from Renaissance choral music to jazz, from contemporary classical works to popular song, it was no surprise that their programme spanned 500 years and several musical styles.

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields 're-connect'

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields have titled their autumn series of eight concerts - which are taking place at 5pm and 7.30pm on two Saturdays each month at their home venue in Trafalgar Square, and being filmed for streaming the following Thursday - ‘re:connect’.

Lucy Crowe and Allan Clayton join Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO at St Luke's

The London Symphony Orchestra opened their Autumn 2020 season with a homage to Oliver Knussen, who died at the age of 66 in July 2018. The programme traced a national musical lineage through the twentieth century, from Britten to Knussen, on to Mark-Anthony Turnage, and entwining the LSO and Rattle too.

Choral Dances: VOCES8, Live from London

With the Live from London digital vocal festival entering the second half of the series, the festival’s host, VOCES8, returned to their home at St Annes and St Agnes in the City of London to present a sequence of ‘Choral Dances’ - vocal music inspired by dance, embracing diverse genres from the Renaissance madrigal to swing jazz.

Royal Opera House Gala Concert

Just a few unison string wriggles from the opening of Mozart’s overture to Le nozze di Figaro are enough to make any opera-lover perch on the edge of their seat, in excited anticipation of the drama in music to come, so there could be no other curtain-raiser for this Gala Concert at the Royal Opera House, the latest instalment from ‘their House’ to ‘our houses’.

Fading: The Gesualdo Six at Live from London

"Before the ending of the day, creator of all things, we pray that, with your accustomed mercy, you may watch over us."

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):