Review by Tony Watts
The relationship of totalitarian regimes to the arts is malign, politicos wanting to neuter them, fearing freedom of expression as a direct threat to their control of the populace and its communal thought process. Censorship of work, persecution of its creators and campaigns branding it as degenerate are as common in contemporary dictatorships as they had been previously in the dark days of Nazi Germany. The cabaret scene in the Weimar Republic was anathema to the German reactionaries of the time, as Stefan Zweig observed: ‘amid the general collapse of values, a kind of insanity took hold of precisely those middle-class circles which had hitherto been unshakeable in their order.’ Young ladies proudly boasted that they were perverted; to be suspected of virginity at sixteen would have been considered a disgrace in every school in Berlin.’ A 1938 exhibition, Entartate Musik, was mounted by propagandist Hans Severus Ziegler to demonstrate how necessary it was to ban this music, describing it as ‘Un-German’ as it was Jazz-influenced and written by Jewish and black composers: ‘Effigies of wickedness’. It was in this atmosphere of repression that a body of work was created which is explored in a lively collaboration between English National Opera (ENO) and the Gate Theatre, currently enjoying a run at the tiny West London venue until June 9.
Following from George Benjamin and Martin Crimp’s marvelous production, Written on Skin – which was performed at the Royal Opera House in 2017 – their third opera, Lessons in Love and Violence carries the duo’s (composer and librettist) signature trademark: transcending compelling storytelling with exquisite sound worlds.
Working together, again, with director, Katie Mitchell and set designer, Vicki Mortimer Lessons in Love and Violence conveys a contemporary adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s harrowing play on the reign of Edward II. Written on Skin (see my 2017 review here) has a rich landowner who forces his wife to eat the heart of her secret lover without knowing it. Here the cruelty and abuse ensue when the King’s cold-blooded wife, Isabel (outstandingly performed by Barbara Hannigan) drops a priceless pearl in a glass of vinegar and dangles it, like a carrot, in front of a group of impoverished people.
John Savournin, artistic director of Charles Court Opera (CCO) and professional opera singer, met me at Rosemary Branch Theatre in the middle of rehearsals (on a chilly Saturday) to discuss CCO’s new and fresh production of The Mikado, which opens this week at the King’s Head Theatre. John talked to me about Gilbert & Sullivan’s inspiration behind the comic work and his optimistic outlook of the opera landscape for Off-West End companies and productions.
Opera wouldn’t be influential if it wasn’t for the role of the ‘diva’ (Italian for ‘goddess’) or ‘prima donna’. Its voices, the magnificent sopranos, tender contraltos, and mellifluous mezzo-sopranos are huge driving forces that foster our love for opera.
Opera is the one of the few artistic genres that elevates the status of women. Since the time of Handel and Mozart, opera’s trouser-roles have also played an influential part. They were specifically made for women to cross-dress as men, manly fighters and despairing boy-like lovers.
To celebrate Women’s Day, I want to share my favourite women in opera from voice to characterisation.
Bampton Classical Opera’s 25th anniversary season opens with a concert this week (Wednesday 7th) to mark the bicentenary of Anglo-Italian soprano Nancy Storace (1765–1817). The concert includes significant works composed by Mozart, Haydn, Stephen Storace, Sarti and Salieri, which were associated with her, and arias that will be sung by American soprano Jacquelyn Stucker. Here, Jaquelyn, a Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera House, shares her insight and admiration for Nancy Storace and the works she shall be performing at the concert, as well as her love for cooking a hearty Sunday roast.
Apologises. This one is a long report because there was plenty to cover on Barrie Kosky’s production. Enjoy!
For those of you who are new to Bizet’s opera, you’ve heard the music before. Without knowing it, you’ve heard the music of Carmen in a perfume, insurance or car advert. It is the second most performed opera at the Royal Opera House (ROH), and many would recommend Carmen as an opera for first-timers to see, yet I’m unsure if I’d say the same for the opening night I attended on Monday.