Lessons in Love and Violence

Benjamin: Lessons in Love and Violence

Dutch National Opera, 25 June 2018

Inspection_of_Gaveston's_head_by_the_earls_of_Lancaster,_Hereford,_and_Arundel.jpg

The Earls of Lancaster, Hereford and Arundel inspect Piers Gaveston’s head, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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.

Full review on Opera Today.

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Armchair Opera from Aix and Orange

Alina from Aix

Alcina from Aix-en-Provence © Patrick Berger

Saturday was bonus night for armchair opera viewers. In the webcast from Munich Anja Harteros proved that she is the Arabella of our times. Conductor Philippe Jordan, turning the Strauss score into silver gauze, slightly prolonged her big moments so that we could savour her glorious arches of sound. Theatrically, her Arabella was beautiful, spirited and commitment-shy. The cast and production got positive reviews, but the microphones were not kind to all the singers. The screen exaggerated the busy gestures and frantic running of some of the characters. Neither did it love the stretch-material costumes for Ms Harteros and Doris Soffel, formidable as Arabella’s mother. Costume designers should remember that jersey is for nymphettes, not grown women. The most interesting aspect of Andreas Dresen’s direction was Arabella’s anti-chemistry with Mandryka. Once the man of Arabella’s dreams turns up in the flesh he just seems to provoke her irritation more than anything else. The ending is a highly equivocal engagement.

The Munich State Opera does not make its webcasts available for catch-up, but another live webcast from Saturday, Carmen from the Chorégies d’Orange festival, will be available for free for a limited time on medici.tv. This musically sedate performance stars Kate Aldrich, surely one of the prettiest Carmens ever, and the umpteenth incarnation of Jonas Kaufmann’s Don José, which is still top-tier and overcomes both the relaxed conducting and the aimless staging. The cigarette girls are dressed as if they have to sing in Poulenc’s Dialogues des carmélites as soon as Carmen bites the dust. Later on, Carmen and friends put on some very elegant weekend outfits, and the bullfighters wear really good imitations of the blinding trajes de luz, but the acting fails to shape up. The set consists of giant playing cards because, as we know, it’s all in the cards. I rather liked this fatalistic set, just as I liked the giant criss-cross staircase representing Arabella’s crossroads decision in Munich. The problem was what the characters did on those playing cards. They tried a bit of stylised flamenco and took part in funeral-paced processions. Mostly, the soldiers kept creeping up behind Carmen and eyeing her with drool dripping down their beards. Maybe the mistral blowing in everyone’s hair made all this more convincing live than it was on screen.

No such misgivings about the Alcina from another French festival, this time Aix-en-Provence. Handel’s masterpiece is available for five more months on the The Opera Platform, but unfortunately only in European countries. Director Katie Mitchell is not embarrassed by the magic in the plot and her update is witty, sexy and gorgeous. Alcina’s magic kingdom is a sumptuous mansion where a coven of age-old witches live with numerous skeletons, or rather stuffed animals, in the attic. Propped up by a youth elixir, their sole aim in life is to ensnare young male sexual victims. Patricia Petibon’s, ahem, idiosyncratically sung Alcina is happy with vanilla sex, but her sister Morgana, the copiously talented Anna Prohaska, likes to be tied up. The arias are carefully staged, movingly so towards the end, and every second of this production makes sense. Phillippe Jaroussky is a vocally ravishing Ruggiero, the knight who makes Alcina fall in love with him and zaps her magic. Baroque expert Andrea Marcon wields an enchanted wand in the pit.