George Benjamin - Lessons in Love and Violence
Royal Opera House - London, 2018
George Benjamin, Katie Mitchell, Stéphane Degout, Barbara Hannigan, Gyula Orendt, Peter Hoare, Samuel Boden, Jennifer France, Krisztina Szabó, Andri Björn Róbertsson
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden - 26 May 2018
I think it's fair to say that George Benjamin and Martin Crimp have paid more attention to the structure than the plot of their latest opera, and judging by the interviews with both of them in the Royal Opera House programme for its world premiere they'd probably be the first to admit it. That's not to say that there is anything wrong with that in an opera where the abstraction of music and its construction have an important part to play in addition to the dramatic narrative. As it happens however, Lessons in Love and Violence is not only brilliantly structured, it also seem to achieve exactly what it sets out to achieve, and perhaps more than you might expect from the title.
Maybe that kind of tight focus without any unnecessary over-elaboration is all we need in a situation, and certainly Benjamin's previous collaboration with playwright Martin Crimp, Written on Skin, is just as tightly and effectively delineated. But there might also be something more that we can derive from the artistry of the composer's musical interpretation of the text, from Katie Mitchell's direction and from the singing performances themselves. Certainly every element of the work has had the utmost attention, thought, precision and talent applied to its component parts, and in the combination of them raise the work to much more than the sum of them.
The lesson in love and violence that Benjamin and Crimp (and Mitchell and Degout and Hannigan et al) give us - or rather the lesson that they show us being passed on from one generation to the next - is thematically similar to Written on Skin and likewise based on a historical event and an old text, but reflected to some extent through a modern-day perspective. Drawn from, or perhaps more inspired by Marlowe's play 'Edward II', Lessons in Love and Violence is based on the situation (and violence) that ensues when the king's military advisor Mortimer takes offense at the favour and influence that Edward II's lover Gaveston has over the king, over the position it leaves the queen Isabel in, for the scandal it is causing and the harm that is doing to a nation slipping into instability and civil war.
Divided into seven scenes, running to only 90 minutes without an interval, the drama and phrasing of the dialogue is certainly mannered and not particularly naturalistic, but the focus is more on mood than exposition, on the accumulation of slights and conflicts, on personality and behaviour, all of it leading from love to acts of cruelty and barbarism. Watching its delivery and trajectory, it's easy to think that the work is rather laboured in terms of being meticulously thought out and almost, some might say, too academic an exercise in putting a situational drama to music. That might be the case but for the fact that in performance it really doesn't show.
All you see is a drama of remarkable concision in its concentration of musical and dramatic forces towards those essential themes, the work breathing sensual fire and menace. Crimp's phrasing is intense, direct and unadorned, repeating phrases, overlapping dialogues. Benjamin's score matches the fluctuations of mood and dynamic, dreamily sensual one moment, slow and sinister the next, harsh and dissonant the next. Combined they provide not so much a history lesson as a lesson in how love is viewed as weakness and how violence permits one to achieve personal and political ends. The lesson is well learned by the young king who observes the machinations of Mortimer and Isabel, and the result is that the violence is turned back on them. At the same time however, the underlying story, character and personalities revealed by the music, the direction and the singing ensure that this is never purely considered in an abstract or academic manner but closely related to human emotions and behaviours which can then be applied in a wider context.
Which is what Katie Mitchell's contribution brings to the work in collaboration with set and costume designer Vicki Mortimer, using some of their familiar traits. The setting is relatively modern-day, removing the subject from being tied to a historical period drama. The characters sometimes move in slow motion to enhance action or freeze the surrounding drama to bring focus to the singer, but the mood and rhythms are always fully attuned to the score and the text. There is also not unexpectedly a strong feminist vision the Mitchell brings to the work that is not necessarily explicit in the drama. Although it's the king's young son who brings to an end (or perpetuates) the cycle of violence at the conclusion of the opera with the execution of Mortimer, it's his young sister (a non-singing role) who wields the gun here - a turn of events that puts you in mind of Mitchell's work on the Purcell derived opera Miranda.
Hand-picked for the roles, the cast is simply superb and it's really hard to imagine any better singers fulfilling the roles, complementing each other and striking exciting contrasts. Singing impeccably in English, the French baritone Stéphane Degout sounds better than ever as the King (he's never mentioned by title as Edward II), striking out away from being the go-to Pelléas, but still bringing a wonderful soaring lyricism to another role that flirts with the danger in his relationship with Gyula Orendt's Gaveston. Barbara Hannigan has also recently sang in Pelléas et Mélisande, but there's a rather more steely edge to her character as the queen Isabel, delivering barbed inflections to the text that rise of course to shrill heights of imperiousness and ruthlessness. Peter Hoare is terrific as Mortimer, and Samuel Boden impressively assertive as he takes command later in the opera.
I mention Pelléas et Mélisande because it did come to mind now and again watching Lessons in Love and Violence. Not that it sounds at all like Debussy's masterpiece, but it is similarly structured into distinct intense dream-like scenes with quite beautiful instrumental passages between them. There's a darker outlook here however that is also reminiscent of Berg's Wozzeck, another precisely controlled and intense work. Benjamin however very much has his own voice, and it's one that clearly works tremendously well in collaboration with Martin Crimp. Their previous work Written in Skin was deservedly hailed as a modern masterpiece soon after its initial run and Lessons in Love and Violence is every bit its equal, on an initial viewing perhaps an even more brilliant a work in its concept and execution.
Links: Royal Opera House