Ladislav Elgr and Michael Nagy in 'Edward II' © Monika Rittershaus

Two soldiers accuse one another of being sodomites. Then both unbutton their shirts, revealing sparkly fishnet undershirts. They exit holding hands, only to reappear, some scenes later, dressed as leather queens.

Is it satire, agitprop or tragedy? Hard to say. Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini’s Edward II for Berlin’s Deutsche Oper tells the story of the 14th-century English monarch who was certainly more fond of his male friend than his wife, and came to a horrible end. But is it based on history, on Christopher Marlowe’s 16th-century play, or should it be seen as an interpretation of Derek Jarman’s high-camp postmodern 1991 film? Librettist Thomas Jonigk has written a text that is disjointed, scatological and one-dimensional, more polemic on the world’s injustice and brutality towards gay men throughout history than drama.

Scartazzini’s score is dense and derivative, following the gestures of European modernism and the text with onomatopoeic literalism. It is knotty and demanding without any moments of blinding originality or beauty; the 90-minute performance passes with grinding slowness.

Injustice on the basis of sexual orientation is still a burningly relevant issue in many countries, but the Deutsche Oper’s team manage to make something that looks dated and adolescent at the same time. There are lumberjacks, bears, cross-dressers and fetishists, there are feathers and sequins and many explicit and implied phallic references. Heterosexuals are portrayed as murderous breeders, scheming and bigoted. Christof Loy’s slick staging follows the libretto slavishly, and in the process loses any chance to bring a universal relevance to a tale that already feels like a petulant attempt by a privileged clique to claim alliance with a history of marginalisation and victimhood. Yes, being a gay monarch in medieval England could lead to your being killed horribly, but so could a great many other things.

The house has taken enough care with the piece for the end-product to be a polished cause for depression. All that work for this? Thomas Søndergård nurses the impenetrable orchestral writing into something with more clarity and lyricism than it deserves, and the excellent cast sings as if the music really matters. In the title role, Michael Nagy is impassioned and intense; as lover Gaveston, Ladislav Elgr is athletic and glib; Agneta Eichenholz, as spurned wife Isabella, makes the best of a highly unsympathetic role; Markus Brück and Gideon Poppe bring comic power to their roles as sodomite soldiers; Andrew Harris has villainous charisma as Mortimer.

To March 9, deutscheoperberlin.de

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