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

Cilea's L'arlesiana at Opera Holland Park

In a rank order of suicidal depressives, Federico - the Provençal peasant besotted with ‘the woman from Arles’, L’arlesiana, who yearns to break free from his mother’s claustrophobic grasp, who seeks solace from betrayal and disillusionment in the arms of a patient childhood sweetheart, but who is ultimately broken by deluded dreams and unrequited passion - would surely give many a Thomas Hardy protagonist a run for their money.

Prom 1: Karina Canellakis makes history on the opening night of the Proms 2019

The young American conductor Karina Canellakis made history as the first woman to conduct the First Night of the Proms last night (19 July 2019) as she conducted the BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall with soloists Asmik Grigorian (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Ladislav Elgr (tenor), Jan Martiník (bass) and Peter Holder (organ) in Zosha Di Castri's Long is the Journey, Short Is the Memory (the world premiere of a BBC commission), Antonin Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning Wheel and Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass.

Barbe & Doucet's new production of Die Zauberflöte at Glyndebourne

No one would pretend that Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto for Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte would go down well with the #MeToo generation. Or with first, second or third wave feminists for that matter.

Three Chamber Operas at the Aix Festival

Along with the celestial Mozart Requiem, a doomed Tosca and a gloriously witty Mahagonny the Aix Festival’s new artistic director Pierre Audi regaled us with three chamber operas — the premiere of a brilliant Les Mille Endormis, the technically playful Blank Out (on a turgid subject), and a heavy-duty Jakob Lenz.

Laurent Pelly's production of La Fille du régiment returns to Covent Garden

French soprano Sabine Devieilhe seems to find feisty adolescence a neat fit. I first encountered her when she assumed the role of a pill-popping nightclubbing ‘Beauty’ - raced from ecstasy-induced wonder to emergency ward - when I reviewed the DVD of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Handel’s Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno at Aix-en-Provence in 2016.

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in Aix

Make no mistake, this is about you! Jim laid-out dead on the stage floor, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen brought his very loud orchestra (London’s Philharmonia) to an abrupt halt. Black out. The maestro then turned his spotlighted face to confront us and he held his stare. There was no mistake, the music was about us.

Mozart's Travels: Classical Opera and The Mozartists at Wigmore Hall

There was a full house at Wigmore Hall for Classical Opera’s/The Mozartists’ final concert of the 2018-19 season: a musical paysage which chartered, largely chronologically, Mozart’s youthful travels from London to The Hague, on to Paris, then Rome, concluding - following stop-overs in European cultural cities such as Munich and Vienna - with an arrival at his final destination, Prague.

Tosca in Aix

From the sublime — the Mozart Requiem — to the ridiculous, namely stage director Christophe Honoré's Tosca. A ridiculous waste of operatic resources.

A terrific, and terrifying, The Turn of the Screw at Garsington

One might describe Christopher Oram’s set for Louisa Muller’s new production of The Turn of the Screw at Garsington as ‘shabby chic’ … if it wasn’t so sinister.

Mozart Requiem in Aix

Pierre Audi, now the directeur général of the Festival d’Aix as well as the artistic director of New York City’s Park Avenue Armory opens a new era for this distinguished opera festival in the south of France with a new work by the Festival’s signature composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

A Rachmaninov Drama at Middle Temple Hall

It is Rachmaninov’s major works for orchestra - the Second and Third Piano Concertos, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the Symphonic Dances - alongside the All-Night Vespers and the music for solo piano, which have earned the composer a permanent place in the concert repertoire today.

Fun, Frothy, and Frivolous: L’elisir d’amore at Las Vegas

There are a dizzying array of choices for music entertainment in Las Vegas ranging from Celine Dion and Cher to Paul McCartney and Aerosmith. Admittedly, these performers are a far cry from opera, but the point is that Las Vegas residents have many options when it comes to live music.

McVicar's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro returns to the Royal Opera House

David McVicar's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has been a remarkable success since it debuted in 2006. Set with the Count of Almaviva's fearfully grand household in 1830, McVicar's trick is to surround the principals by servants in a supra-naturalistic production which emphasises how privacy is at a premium.

The Cunning Little Vixen at the Barbican Hall

The presence of a large cast of ‘animals’ in Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen can encourage directors and designers to create costume-confections ranging from Disney-esque schmaltz to grim naturalism.

Barbe-Bleue in Lyon

Stage director Laurent Pelly is famed for his Offenbach stagings, above all others his masterful rendering of Les Contes d’Hoffmann as a nightmare. Mr. Pelly has staged eleven of Offenbach’s ninety-nine operettas over the years (coincidently this production of Barbe-Bleue is Mr. Pelly’s ninety-eighth opera staging).

The Princeton Festival Presents Nixon in China

The Princeton Festival has adopted a successful and sophisticated operatic programming strategy, whereby the annual opera alternates between a standard warhorse and a less known, more challenging work. Last year Princeton presented Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This year the choice is Nixon in China by modern American composer John Adams, which opened before a nearly full house of appreciative listeners.

Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel at Grange Park Opera

When Engelbert Humperdinck's sister, Adelheid Wette, wrote the libretto to Hansel and Gretel the idea of a poor family living in a hut near the woods, on the bread-line, would have had an element of realism to it despite the sentimental layers which Wette adds to the tale.

Handel’s Belshazzar at The Grange Festival

What a treat to see members of The Sixteen letting their hair down. This was no strait-laced post-concert knees-up, but a full on, drunken orgy at the court of the most hedonistic ruler in the Old Testament.

Don Giovanni in Paris

A brutalist Don Giovanni at the Palais Garnier, Belgian set designer Jan Versweyveld installed three huge, a vista raw cement towers that overwhelmed the Opéra Garnier’s Second Empire opulence. The eight principals faced off in a battle royale instigated by stage director Ivo van Hove. Conductor Philippe Jordan thrust the Mozart score into the depths of expressionistic conflict.

A riveting Rake’s Progress from Snape Maltings at the Aldeburgh Festival

Based on Hogarth’s 18th-century morality tale in eight paintings and with a pithy libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, Stravinsky’s operatic farewell to Neo-classicism charts Tom Rakewell’s ironic ‘progress’ from blissful ignorance to Bedlam.

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):