Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini’s “Edward II” in Berlin
A passionate story from the England of the 14th century about King Edward II, who ruled for twenty unhappy years and left a country in chaos, is the subject of Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini’s third opera. Power struggles, affairs and intrigues about Edward’s homosexual relationships offer a theatrical subject matter for a drama of relationships and politics. The protagonists are his favourite Gaveston, his spurned wife Isabella and her scheming lover Mortimer, and the public, in the shape of the people, parliament and the clerics; it ends with the bloodthirsty murder of Edward. Christopher Marlowe wrote an extremely successful play about Edward in 1591/92 which concentrates the story on the scandal around Gaveston, and Derek Jarman produced a highly stylised and powerfully pictorial cult film in 1990. Following Scartazzini‘s successful collaboration with the librettist Thomas Jonigk on Der Sandmann , the team comes together again with director Christof Loy for the production at the Deutsche Oper Berlin (premiere: 19.2.2017). Marie Luise Maintz put some questions to the composer about the new opera.
[t]akte: After WUT, with Edward II you’re turning again to historical subject matter from a seemingly distant period, but one which still has the ability to shock today with its scandalous aspects. What attracts you as a musician, a composer, to this subject?
Scartazzini: There is a great deal of life in this story. The characters of the figures themselves, their relationships to one another, their unfulfilled needs, but also the social constraints to which they are subject provide a broad canvas for a composer: I follow their emotions down to the smallest ramifications, I delve into them.
Of course by the very choice of a medieval subject matter again there is a certain affinity with my first opera WUT. That was predominantly about a great emotion, as shown in the title. The main character Pedro works through its particularly destructive characteristics and finds no redemption. With Edward II the course is less deterministic, as alongside the protagonist Edward there are other important characters who are differently depicted in the music. There are sub-plots, buffo-like passages and an overlayering of different periods which I find attractive. Despite all the archaic power of the medieval subject matter, there is ample space for nuance in Jonigk’s version. So even the infamous bestial murder of Edward – he is impaled “from behind” with a red-hot iron rod, alluding to his homosexuality – is in the end transcended in a mysterious and peaceful way.
Is it about historical distance, or on the contrary, about topicality, or about a timeless drama, a parable as it were?
I don’t think much of overly obvious topicality. Today’s news is usually ancient history by tomorrow. Historical distance seems more interesting to me as a concept, because distance potentially sharpens our focus on the essential. Timelessness is certainly an important criterion. When a topic is still discussed centuries later, and continues to inspire artists to work on it, it is evident that it has maintained its freshness. With Edward II it is especially the subject of gay love, and above all the self-confidence with which Edward almost celebrates his love for Gaveston. I think that it is this aspect above all which brought the drama new attention in the 20th century. And for me personally this was the main reason that I wanted to engage with it.
You described the film by Derek Jarman as your first encounter with the topic. Did it play a role in your artistic conception? Or did you have an alternative approach?
The film provided an initial spark, it aroused my interest in the subject. When I specifically think of Jarman’s interpretation, above all it evokes strong visual images: high, towering, distorted ochre yellow walls, abstract spaces, close-up shots of faces. Of course this stylised reduction, recalling a set design, strengthened my view that the drama was suitable for the operatic stage. But film and opera are completely different media. So I never had the feeling that I had to “restrain” or position myself in deference to the film. The dramaturgical concept for the opera was in fact not mine, but came from Thomas Jonigk.
Thomas Jonigk’s libretto integrates a sophisticated turn, a reflection on the present, and introduces a special artistic figure. How was working with him?
We work very autonomously. At the beginning there was a mutual exchange of opinions about the subject matter. After a few months Jonigk presented me with the complete libretto, which we discussed together scene by scene. Then I began to work out the composition. For musical reasons some small adjustments, particularly with the language, were necessary now and then. But basically we allowed each other a great deal of freedom. I follow his dramaturgy, and he trusts me in musical matters.
How is your musical conception, how are the roles and vocal parts structured, what role does the orchestra play? Does this historical subject conjure up a particular tone?
It is large opera for a large stage, there are ten solo parts, a large chorus, electronic recordings and in the orchestra, a considerable percussion apparatus. Particularly in the crowd scenes, but also in Edward’s two nightmares, a brutal, musically abrupt mood prevails. Perhaps it is actually an echo of the historical setting which made an impression on me through Jarman’s film. But the music doesn’t stay like that. There is also roughness in the quiet, distorted sounds of fear, the shadowy and the mysterious. On the other hand, the Elizabethan buffo scenes are characterised by a stolid and portly, ironically overexaggerated “dimwitted music”. And then there’s also the erotically-charged music of desire; unfulfilled and unquenched in the case of Isabella, tender and threatened with Edward and Gaveston. Of the ten roles Isabella is the only female figure and as such, has special importance in the vocal writing.
So the music doesn’t follow an overarching conception, but is involved with the emotional situations. Certain scenes are musical movements complete in themselves, and others are full of references to things from the past or things to come. The music has its own form, its own cycles, and naturally also expresses inner events which are not defined in words.
In the musical drama the timing, the tautness, the game of tension plays a particular role – how do you approach this?
All my three operas are short. Edward II will be about 90 minutes long. From conviction I tend rather towards tautness, towards sharp contours and intersections. But that is just a generalisation; timing and the game with tension are very strongly dependent upon the actual situations in opera, and have to respond to the structure and logic of the scene. The powerful ending of the fifth scene, for example, is followed in the sixth by an intimate, oppressive recitative with fragile sounds of the glass harp. Variety maintains the interest. And not least, my interest in an action-filled opera is also connected with this need for tension and identification. A good story also always makes for good, exciting entertainment.