Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A haunting, edgy and strongly sung triumph: Scartazzini's world premiere of Edward II at Deutche Oper Berlin

Brought to the stage by Deutsche Oper Berlin and directed by Christof Loy, Swiss composer Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini's much anticipated world premiere work, Edward II, arrived in a dramatically layered, haunting, edgy and strongly sung triumph on Sunday night.

Michael Nagy as Edward II
King of England from 1307-27, Edward II's reign was problematic for more than his failures in an ongoing war with Scotland. Controversy brewed over his patronage of a small circle of favourites and, in this story's context, one of them in particular had to be disposed of.

Based on Christopher Marlowe's Edward II: The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer (c.1592) as well as other sources, librettist Thomas Jonigk vividly and brutally highlights Edward II's personal tragedy, focusing on the crisis Edward faces in staunchly holding onto a love he can neither live without nor able to hold onto power with - the sinful love for another man in the context of religious contradictions, power struggles and homophobic attitudes.

Scartazzini and Jonigk eschew dry historical storytelling by crafting its structure with something of altered realities that blend Edward's premonition-like nightmares with events that mix the period and modern. The language effuses sarcasm, is direct and uncensored ("arsefucker" and "cocksucker" aren't used gratuitously). It's also strikingly realised by the design team that gives the work well-packaged tightness.

The main action takes place almost always across the breadth of the fore-stage and with great impact. Annette Kurz's set design features a medieval-inspired imposing memorial-like stone tower (no doubt politely alluding to a phallus) that stands to the left, with its small circular interior a capsule for secondary layers of action (usually sodomitic) with access to the rear stage. To the right, much open area exists for the large chorus gatherings and, though a single set, it always serves Loy's unabashed and often confronting direction. Klaus Bruns's costumes gravitate towards the smart and spiffy contemporary with elements of the exaggerated and Stefan Bolliger's lighting design adds depths of intrigue.

Ladislav Elgr as Gaveston and Michael Nagy 
Opening as the first of ten scenes that both segue and overlap, Edward in a dreams, is taunted by his people and bears witness to the shocking and violent sexual torture of his lover Piers de Gaveston. A mock wedding for them ensues that becomes a powerful piece of theatre full of pain, humiliation and injustice rarely seen on stage.

When, near the opera's end, a crowd is directed to the "Next room", we are given the sense that we're watching the "malleable" masses (the same ones who earlier revolted against and persecuted their king) being shown a curious contemporary exhibit of a museum diorama brought to life and leaves a powerful taste that has one question morality and justice as much of the work does.

Scartazzini's thrashing, restless and episodic 90-minute score is dotted by a tribal-like beat and cacophonous percussion that describe the tumultuous events and which conductor Thomas Søndergard leads to give much dramatic effect. The work includes scenes for a large and snarling chorus of citizens and the Chor der Deutchen Oper Berlin obliged in big and excellent voice even though a couple of times they kept the soloists from ringing through.

Still, opening night came across well-rehearsed and showed off some very appealing voices and performances as part of a superbly integrated and committed cast that aid in giving the work much throbbing theatricality.

Hefty-voiced baritone Michael Nagy plunged deep into the title role as Edward II, a star vehicle exhibiting the troubled, lascivious and madly in love king with a sting to his performance as he enters a path of no return. Nagy easily captured the sturdiness and range of the vocal writing but it's in the lower reaches of the voice that an enormous treasure chest of wealth opened up.

Edward's lover is easily identified by the strapping athletic good looks of Ladislav Elgr who depicts Gaveston as a provocative man who spends most of his time in white boxers and singlet. Elgr's liquid bright tenor compliments Nagy's broad and ripe sound and he portrays the victimised Gaveston with remarkable feeling. Importantly, the two make a compelling pair in love.

As Isabella, Agneta Eichenholz eloquently conveys the queen's frustration of languishing in a loveless marriage and subsequent spiteful air as she plots with her lover Roger Mortimer to depose the king. Eichenholz just as easily floats the music as she does in carrying it resonantly large into the sizeable Deutche Oper Theatre and she does so with compelling expressivity.

Jarrett Ott as the Angel and Michael Nagy as Edward II
Andrew Harris is a menacing presence as Mortimer and his brawny-voiced and huge capacity bass got an impressive workout. Another firm performance comes from the more burnished baritone of Jarrett Ott as the Angel only Edward can see and who shares a devastatingly haunting scene with Edward in his final moments.

Burkhard Ulrich carries of the luscious fabric costumed contradictory and sinister Walter Langton, as Bishop of Coventry, with aplomb, his wiry and ringing tenor appropriate in the role. And providing light relief but charged with loads of wit, Markus Brück and Gideon Poppe pair wonderfully together in their exploits as soldiers, councillors and tour guides in a hoot as their sexual persuasions and fetishes are ignited and tested.

When Edward learns of Gaveston's actual murder, it is from his own son who delivers the gruesome account. With it comes an innocence that belies the atrocity via the purity and sweetness of its rendition by young Ben Kleiner as the questioning young Prince Edward. It's one of many moments that lift the art of opera and theatre in a work that will no doubt be looking to a solid and exciting future.

Deutche Oper Berlin
Until 9th March

Production photos: Monika Rittershaus 

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