I requested a review copy of the Blu-ray release of George Benjamin’s Lessons in Love and Violence when it came out in December. There was a bit of a hiatus in supplies from them which resumed again recently but when several packages arrived without the Benjamin piece I decided I was out of luck so I wrote a review based on a copy of the BBC’s broadcast of the work. That was two days ago. Today the Blu-ray arrived! I’ve watched enough of it to convince myself that I only need to make minior changes to the review which I have done. The revised review is here.
George Benjamin’s latest opera Lessons in Love and Violence debuted at Covent Garden last year. It was broadcast on the BBC and is still available on the web from Arte and has also been released on DVD and Blu-ray. This review is based on the Blu-ray version.
Gluck’s Orfeo/Orphée is one of those works where things get a bit complicated because an Italian and a French version wre produced and then all kinds of mash ups of the two versions. It’s a bit like Don Carlo/Don Carlos or Guglielmo Tell/Guillaume Tell. The original Orfeo ed Euridice, which premiered in Vienna is quite short and has Orfeo written for a castrato. The Paris version spreads the piece out over three acts, adds both new vocal music and lots more dance music and has Orphée written for haut-contre. Today, when people do the French version they usually cut some of the new music and us the higher Orphée music; casting either a mezzo or a counter-tenor. This is true of both recordings (Paris 2000 and Munich 2003) which have come my way in the past.
To quote a quite different opera, “it is a curious story”. In 1967 a production of Wagner’s Die Walküre, heavily influenced by Herbert von Karajan  who conducted the Berlin Philharmonic for the performances, opened the very first Osterfestspiele Salzburg. 50 years later it was “remounted” with Vera and Sonja Nemirova directing. I use inverted commas because it’s actually not entirely clear how much was old and how much new. It might be more accurate to describe it as a homage to the earlier version. In any event, it was recorded, in 4K Ultra HD, no less and released as one of the very first opera discs in that format.
Handel’s Arminio was written for Covent Garden and while admired by the cognoscenti at the time it wasn’t a commercial success. It’s a well worked three act opera seria with nothing much to distinguish it from others of its ilk. For what it’s worth it’s set during Augustus’ attempt to conquer the land between the Rhine and the Elbe but its themes of death or glory and love versus duty, all with an impausible reconciliation ending, could easily be set anywhere. Actually it almost wilfully ignores history as the libretto claims it happened in 9AD when the real Arminius (Hermann the Cherusker) decisively defeated Varo (also in the opera) in the Teutoburger Wald ending Roman hopes of extending the Empire beyond the Rhine.(*)
Karel Szymanowski’s 1924 opera Król Roger is surely the only opera in Polish in anything like the standard rep. Maybe that’s one reason it’s not performed all that often because it’s really rather good and Kasper Holten’s 2015 production at Covent Garden makes a pretty good case for it. The story is set in 12th century Sicily, though as we shall see , that really doesn’t matter. The Church is complaining to the king about a heretical prophet, the Shepherd, who is leading people astray with a strange doctrine of Love and Nature. Roger’s queen is much taken with the Shepherd and helps protect him. The king, who is clearly battling demons rooted in a bloody past, vacillates. Eventually he’s persuaded and the opera closes with Roger singing an ecstatic hymn to the rising sun.
I’m not, in the normal run of things, a huge fan of obscure bel canto operas. A very long list of them languish in obscurity for very good reasons. So, my hopes were not all that high when I stuck the 2015 Glyndebourne recording of Donizetti’s Poliuto in the player. I was wrong. This is probably the best martyrdom opera from Glyndebourne since Peter Sellars’ production of Theodora in 1998.