By Rebecca Schmid
BERLIN — In Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini’s opera Edward II, societal punishment for the British king already lurks around the corner in the opening scene. To nightmarish electronic whirring and skittering strings, he watches in horror as his confidante and — according to some medieval sources — lover, Piers Gaveston, is dragged offstage in a bloody bridal gown. An angel in a silver lamé dress appears to console the king but also foreshadows his impending death, raw percussion and squealing strings entering as Edward leans in to kiss him.
The life of the king, deposed and possibly murdered in 1327, has taken on mythological dimensions since Christopher Marlowe cast his relationship to Gaveston as explicitly homosexual in the 1592 play Edward II. The 1991 Derek Jarman film updated the drama by introducing both graphic sexual scenes and scenes of anti-gay persecution. Swiss composer Scartazzini has now joined forces with librettist Thomas Jonigk and stage director Christof Loy for the first operatic version of the story, premiered Feb.19 at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.
Edward’s relationship with Gaveston makes for a twist on the love triangle which dominates so much of operatic history: Caught between his wife, Isabella of France, and Gaveston — whom he names Earl of Cornwall — the king finds himself both romantically and politically conflicted to the point that he loses his mind. This inner torment builds the main substance of Scartazzini’s score: screaming dissonances, eerie microtonality, requiem-like brass, and raw percussion create a realm where the protagonist is trapped both within an unjust society and the deteriorating walls of his own psyche.
And yet, because the 90-minute opera remains mostly within this trajectory, there is little room to explore the conflict between Edward’s duties as a king and husband and his affection for Gaveston. Instead, the stage becomes a platform for the modern gay rights movement — a rather one-dimensional approach when one imagines what he might have dealt with as a homosexual in 14th-century England.
Gaveston (Ladislav Elgr) mostly walks around in his underpants, keeping the focus almost exclusively on the erotic nature of Edward’s attraction. Edward (Michael Nagy) is so lusty that he is followed around by a silent, girlish extra with whom he frolicks while his son (the boy soprano Mattis van Hasselt) delivers the message that Gaveston has been brutally murdered in exile.
The only sexual tension with Isabella (Agneta Eichenholz) emerges mechanically in the opening scene: “You have nothing to look for in my bedroom,” Edward tells her. She addresses the audience directly in the short soliloquy, “I also dreamed” – set to the sparse scoring of electronic, undulating winds and strings – but the nature of her relationship to the king is quickly relegated to the background. In the following scene, the Bishop of Coventry is stripped of his robe and sodomized with a microphone.
The tableaux are so extreme that the listener is strained to appreciate intricate details in Scartazzini’s score. The composer clearly takes a cue from the dark, expressionistic operas of Berg but also includes nods to composers such as Rihm (with whom he studied) and Ligeti. Following a scene with Gaveston in which Edward is reduced to Sprechgesang, twittering winds and ripping strings accompany his declaration that he is going mad.
The use of electronic ambient noise is highly effective in plunging the audience into Edward’s inescapable doom. But the tone of the opera is so dark and violent from start to finish, both musically and visually, that the effect is more tiring than stimulating. The bare set by Annette Kurz revolves around a decaying Anglican altar, with mostly nightmarish lighting by Stefan Bolliger.
In an inspired touch, the intolerant society of 14th-century England comes face-to-face with modernity in the final scene when a group of tourists comes parading in and learns about the king’s brutal death just as his murderers are holding a sharp pole to his rear (in reality, it is not clear how he died – he may have even fled to Italy). Quietly shrieking timbres underscore the agonizing circumstances.
But Jonigk’s libretto packs too much into 10 short scenes. The montage of dream and reality, past and present leaves little room to delve into the characters’ emotional complexity beyond the obvious and — particularly in modern-day Berlin — not-so-shocking fact that most of the male characters onstage, down to the soldiers, are homosexual.
The production nevertheless coheres in its singular vision. Nagy and Elgr give raw but polished performances as Edward and Gaveston. Eichenholz masters Scartazzini’s murderous melodies. James Kryshak is striking as the angel, van Hasselt memorable as the innocent heir to the throne, and Andrew Harris makes a sinister Mortimer, Isabella’s conspiring lover. The house orchestra delivers a well-rehearsed performance under Thomas Søndergård. The audience’s hefty applause on opening night confirmed that, despite its scandalous veneer, Edward II does little to provoke artistically or otherwise.
Performances continue through March 9. For information and tickets, click here.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.