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 Performances

Temple Winter Festival: The Tallis Scholars

Hodie Christus natus est. Today, Christ is born! A miracle: and one which has inspired many a composer to produce their own musical ‘miracle’: choral exultation which seems, like Christ himself, to be a gift to mankind, straight from the divine.

A new Hänsel und Gretel at the Royal Opera House

Fairy-tales work on multiple levels, they tell delightful yet moral stories, but they also enable us to examine deeper issues. With its approachably singable melodies, Engelbert Humperdinck's Märchenoper Hänsel und Gretel functions in a similar way; you can take away the simple delight of the score, but Humperdinck's discreetly Wagnerian treatment of his musical material allows for a variety of more complex interpretations.

Rouvali and the Philharmonia in Richard Strauss

It so rarely happens that the final concert you are due to review of any year ends up being one of the finest of all. Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s all Richard Strauss programme with the Philharmonia Orchestra, however, was often quite remarkable - one might quibble that parts of it were somewhat controversial, and that he even lived a little dangerously, but the impact was never less than imaginative and vivid. This was a distinctly young man’s view of Strauss - and all the better for that.

‘The Swingling Sixties’: Stravinsky and Berio

Were there any justice in this fallen world, serial Stravinsky – not to mention Webern – would be played on every street corner, or at least in every concert hall. Come the revolution, perhaps.

The Pity of War: Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano at the Barbican Hall

During the past four years, there have been many musical and artistic centenary commemorations of the terrible human tragedies, inhumanities and utter madness of the First World War, but there can have been few that have evoked the turbulence and trauma of war - both past and present, in the abstract and in the particular - with such terrifying emotional intensity as this recital by Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano at the Barbican Hall.

First revival of Barrie Kosky's Carmen at the ROH

Charles Gounod famously said that if you took the Spanish airs out of Carmen “there remains nothing to Bizet’s credit but the sauce that masks the fish”.

Stanford's The Travelling Companion: a compelling production by New Sussex Opera

The first performance of Charles Villiers Stanford’s ninth and final opera The Travelling Companion was given by an enthusiastic troupe of Liverpudlian amateurs at the David Lewis Theatre - Liverpool’s ‘Old Vic’ - in April 1925, nine years after it was completed, eight after it won a Carnegie Award, and one year after the composer’s death.

Russian romances at Wigmore Hall

The songs of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov lie at the heart of the Romantic Russian art song repertoire, but in this duo recital at Wigmore Hall it was the songs of Nikolay Medtner - three of which were framed by sequences by the great Russian masters - which proved most compelling and intriguing.

Don Giovanni: Manitoba Opera

Manitoba Opera turned the art of seduction into bloodsport with its 2018/19 season-opener of Mozart’s dramma giocoso, Don Giovanni often walking a razor’s edge between hilarious social commentary and chilling battles for the soul.

Jonathan Miller's La bohème returns to the Coliseum

And still they come. No year goes by without multiple opportunities to see it; few years now go by without my taking at least one of those opportunities. Indeed, I see that I shall now have gone to Jonathan Miller’s staging on three of its five (!) outings since it was first seen at ENO in 2009.

Sir Thomas Allen directs Figaro at the Royal College of Music

The capital’s music conservatoires frequently present not only some of the best opera in London, but also some of the most interesting, and unusual, as the postgraduate students begin to build their careers by venturing across diverse operatic ground.

Old Bones: Iestyn Davies and members of the Aurora Orchestra 'unwrap' Time at Kings Place

In this contribution to Kings Place’s 2018 Time Unwrapped series, ‘co-curators’ composer Nico Muhly and countertenor Iestyn Davies explored the relationship between time past and time present, and between stillness and motion.

Cinderella goes to the panto: WNO in Southampton

Once upon a time, Rossini’s La Cenerentola was the Cinderella among his operatic oeuvre.

It's a Wonderful Life in San Francisco

It was 1946 when George Bailey of Bedford Falls, NY nearly sold himself to the devil for $20,000. It is 2018 in San Francisco where an annual income of ten times that amount raises you slightly above poverty level, and you’ve paid $310 for your orchestra seat to Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

Des Moines: Glory, Glory Hallelujah

A minor miracle occurred as Des Moines Metro Opera converted a large hall on a Reserve Army Base to a wholly successful theatrical venue, and delivered a stunning rendition of Tom Cipullo’s compelling military-themed one act opera, Glory Denied.

In her beginning is her end: Welsh National Opera's La traviata in Southampton

David McVicar’s La traviata for Welsh National Opera - first seen at Scottish Opera in 2008 and adopted by WNO in 2009 - wears its heavy-black mourning garb stylishly.

'So sweet is the pain': Roberta Invernizzi at Wigmore Hall

In this BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concert at the Wigmore Hall, soprano Roberta Invernizzi presented Italian songs from the first half of seventeenth-century, exploring love and loyalty, loss and lies, and demonstrating consummate declamatory mastery.

Staging Britten's War Requiem

“The best music to listen to in a great Gothic church is the polyphony which was written for it, and was calculated for its resonance: this was my approach in the War Requiem - I calculated it for a big, reverberant acoustic and that is where it sounds best.”

Moshinsky's Simon Boccanegra returns to Covent Garden

Despite the flaming torches of the plebeian plotters which, in the Prologue, etched chiaroscuro omens within the Palladian porticos of Michael Yeargan’s imposing and impressive set, this was a rather slow-burn revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s 1991 production of Simon Boccanegra.

Royal Academy's Semele offers 'endless pleasures'

Self-adoring ‘celebrities’ beware. That smart-phone which feeds your narcissism might just prove your nemesis.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Scene from Lessons in Love and Violence [Photo © Hans van den Bogaard]
27 Jun 2018

Lessons in Love and Violence at the Holland Festival: Impressive in parts

Six years ago composer George Benjamin and playwright Martin Crimp gave the world Written on Skin. It caused a sensation at its unveiling at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Hot on the heels of its world premiere at the Royal Opera House in London, the composer is now conducting their second full-length opera, Lessons in Love and Violence, at the Holland Festival, where he is this year’s Composer in Focus.

Lessons in Love and Violence at the Holland Festival: Impressive in parts

A review by Jenny Camilleri

Above: Scene from Lessons in Love and Violence [Photo © Hans van den Bogaard]

 

Dutch National Opera, one of the work’s seven (!) co-producers, is hosting the production. Benjamin’s new opus impresses with its orchestral texture and the production boasts deluxe visuals and top-drawer performances. But Crimp’s dialogue renders the characters elusive and the score loses theatrical momentum after a strong first half.

Lessons is loosely based on Christopher Marlowe’s historical play Edward II. The plot’s motor is the King’s politically disastrous relationship with his despised favorite, Piers Gaveston. Crimp distills the drama around four main characters: the King, Queen Isabel, Gaveston and the rebel lord Mortimer. After masterminding Gaveston’s death, Mortimer teams up with Isabel to depose the King in favor of his son. The boy king then brutally repays Mortimer for his lessons in ruthless statesmanship. Split into seven scenes, the plot explores the conflict between personal relationships and the responsibilities of power. The libretto specifies different locations, but director Katie Mitchell stages every scene in the King’s bedroom. The handsome set, decorated with Francis Bacon paintings, a reference to Edward’s patronage of the arts, and a tropical aquarium, shifts to reveal different angles of the room. It looks wonderful, but anchoring the plot in a single space has an alienating effect. Mitchell creates further emotional distance between the stage and the public by casting the royal children as constant observers, although this could be Crimp’s directive. Sleek-voiced tenor Samuel Boden as the Boy and Ocean Barrington-Cook, eloquent in the silent role of the Girl, are privy to the most intimate and lacerating interactions between their parents, Gaveston and Mortimer. Seeing them observe and absorb their dubious lessons turns us spectators into clinical observers.

Crimp’s conversations also seem designed to discourage emotional involvement. His pairs of questions and answers sound like wisps of Socratic dialogue. Feelings are hinted at, personalities remain undeveloped. Stéphane Degout’s baritone flowed like dark honey but his words never conveyed who the King really is. He is in thrall to his controlling lover Gaveston, but why? That Isabel emerges as the most clearly delineated character is certainly thanks to Barbara Hannigan’s consummate artistry, but also because her high-lying music, tailored to Hannigan’s strengths, has a distinctive imprint. One of the opera’s best scenes is the nocturnal duet between Isabel and the King. Gaveston has been killed and their relationship has reached its breaking point. Hannigan’s penetrant soprano twisting up into florid hysteria above Degout’s mellifluous misery presented a striking contrast to the prevalent bas-relief of singing imitating speech rhythms. Benjamin gives most of the big, dissonant climaxes to the orchestra. Several of these come, predictably after a while, in the interludes that facilitate scene changes. A most welcome exception was the tautly constructed vocal ensemble as Mortimer has Gaveston seized at a private entertainment. The mix of high and low voices within the orchestral cyclone was the dramatic high point of the performance.

Another big ensemble would have made the suffering of the population more palpable. Instead, two soloists emerge from a crowd of actors and plead with Isabel, who responds by provokingly dissolving a pearl in vinegar, à la Cleopatra. However fierce their interventions, soprano Jennifer France and mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó could not, on their own, convey nation-wide unrest. Since the whole plot hinges on the political consequences of what goes on in the King’s bed, those bedroom walls cried to be knocked down by a huge chorus. While the singing only sporadically reflects the savagery of the violence, and the little love in evidence, the writing for the orchestra is highly dramatic. Benjamin stirs up an atmosphere doused in cold sweat, with threatening strings and rumbling brass. Low instruments predominate, resonating in a deep, multilevel darkness, with the occasional flute darting about in short neurotic figures. Only the composer can say if the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic produced the sounds he had in mind, but they seemed concentrated and responsive to his conducting. The orchestral fabric sounded rich and vibrant throughout, from the bare eeriness of the cimbalom and harp to the density of the looming string figures.

Since the best scenes occur in the first half, the rest suffers by comparison. In spite of accomplished performances, especially from the excellent Peter Hoare as Mortimer, the appearance of an insane pretender to the throne made little impact. The Madman, bass-baritone Andri Björn Róbertsson, and everyone else, seemed to be repeating the same vocal patterns used earlier. Two short monologues slow things down without adding any insight. First Gaveston, sung by Gyula Orendt, appears to the King looking like himself, although he is, in fact, Death, and summarizes the events we’ve just witnessed. Orendt’s slim baritone did not project enough foreboding to justify this exposition. In the final scene the Boy does the same thing all over again. After several big orchestral crescendos, the ending is a musical anticlimax – a surprising musical device, but also something of a dramatic comedown. There are many fine elements in Lessons in Love and Violence. It feels unfair that the whole does not equal the best of its parts.

Jenny Camilleri


George Benjamin: Lessons in Love and Violence

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; Set and Costume Designer - Vicki Mortimer; Lighting Designer - James Farncombe; Movement - Joseph Alford. Conductor - George Benjamin. Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. Seen at Dutch National Opera & Ballet, Amsterdam, on Monday, 25th of June, 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):