Monday, 28 January 2019

Benjamin - Lessons in Love and Violence (London, 2018)

George Benjamin - Lessons in Love and Violence

Royal Opera House, 2018

George Benjamin, Katie Mitchell, Stéphane Degout, Barbara Hannigan, Gyula Orendt, Peter Hoare, Samuel Boden, Jennifer France, Krisztina Szabó, Andri Björn Róbertsson

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

It's rare for a contemporary opera to quickly become a critical and popular success, although undoubtedly the legacy of Written on Skin will be determined over a longer period, but even as the earlier opera still runs and is given new productions worldwide, the pressure on George Benjamin and Martin Crimp to follow it up must have been considerable. I think it's fair to say that the response towards Lessons in Love and Violence has been cautiously positive, but I suspect its qualities will be more fully recognised in the longer term and it may even stand the test of time as another deeply thoughtful work from what is looking to be a formidable creative team.

Deeply thoughtful and considered however can work both ways, and there remains a slight coldness and calculation about the work in its Royal Opera House world premiere. Whether that's down to overworking the finer details of the structure and composition of the work on the part of Benjamin and Crimp, or whether Katie Mitchell's production doesn't do enough to breathe life into the work is a matter of interpretation, but what comes across with repeated viewing (as it did with Written on Skin) is that what initially might have felt like clinical academic coldness is actually a careful refinement of all the elements that are necessary to strip the work down to its bare essentials.

There's life to be put on old bones (which was also essentially the underlying theme of Written on Skin, opera capable of breathing life into an old historical tale like an illuminated manuscript), and in the case of Lessons in Love and Violence, it's Marlowe's Edward II that serves as the source for Martin Crimp. 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, causing a scandal that leaves the queen Isabel in an awkward position and the nation's affairs being neglected as it slips into instability and war.

With numerous interviews in the official programme (reproduced in the DVD booklet) and YouTube videos explaining and detailing the process, there may have been too much talk done around the work, too much attention given to the back and forth labouring over structure and presentation and not enough opportunity to let the work itself breathe. Ultimately however, it's in performance that the quality of the work comes alive, although even there the intense 80 minutes without an interval really didn't give you time to breathe or take in much beyond the opera's considerable impact. The opportunity to view Lessons in Love and Violence again on its Blu-ray and DVD release shows however that its qualities are still very much in evidence and the work can certainly speak for itself on its own musical and dramatic terms.

Whether you are aware of the working methods behind the scenes or not, the resultant compactness and concision of Marlowe's drama (even though the opera uses almost nothing of the actual text of Edward II) is plainly evident in the fact that it demands the utmost attention from beginning to end for how the music and the drama operate, intersect and interact. If it reminds you at times of Pelléas et Mélisande, Wozzeck or The Turn of the Screw, it's because Lessons in Love and Violence has the same close connection between its charged drama and the psychological complexity underpinning it that is heightened by the musical and dramatic presentation.

George Benjamin's musical language might be initially difficult - there's no easy melodic line to follow, but rather fragmentary jabs, feints and punches - but the undeniable power and dramatic rightness of the music should be plainly evident. It's not just descriptive underscoring, but music that seeks to get inside the characters and the drama, filling it out, going beyond mere representation to a fuller expression of all the sentiments of love, conflict and violence on display. Whether you are able to keep up with it or not, by the time you arrive at the final sudden fall of the curtain, you will certainly feel emotionally drained from the charged and exhilarating situations that have just taken place. It needs to be followed through in that way, an intense run through of emotions in juxtaposition with one another, without an interval or pause for breath.

Lessons in Love and Violence is cinematic in that respect, achieving its impact more through the language of montage and editing than the typical stop-start operatic structures of arias, duets and choral arrangements (and accordingly, it's given a cinematic widescreen presentation here on its video recording). The work follows its own narrative drive and Katie Mitchell's production reflects that, ensuring that every single scene is pushed to its limits of expression, but even employing slow-motion effects (as with Written on Skin) when deemed necessary. Everything takes place in a single bedroom - modern opulence rather than medieval royal - that is presented from various angles, as is the drama in its reflection of perspective from each of its characters.

The performances of the cast are exceptional. French baritone Stéphane Degout sounds better than ever as the King (he's never mentioned by title as Edward II), bringing a wonderful soaring lyricism to the complexity of his relationships with Queen, lover, court and country. Barbara Hannigan brings a steely edge to Isabel, delivering barbed inflections to the text that rise 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. Mitchell's production also takes account of the fact that there are other undercurrents implied and perpetuated by the 'Lessons' in the title with the presence of the king's young son and daughter visible throughout, even in the short filmed instrumental interludes between scenes.

All of this comes together in a way that is rare in opera outside of Pelléas et Mélisande, Wozzeck and The Turn of the Screw, and Lessons in Love and Violence stands up to being measured alongside those masterpieces. It's impossible not to feel the emotional depth and intensity of the work, how it deals with those traditionally operatic big themes, but in a new and vital way. While the sheer impact is undeniable, the richness of the work's construction and musical features are also likely to become more evident with repeated views and listening. As an extension and development upon their collaboration on Written on Skin, Lessons in Love and Violence will surely endure as another important work of modern opera from this creative team.

Released on Blu-ray, Lessons in Love and Violence comes across just as powerfully on screen as it did in live performance. The High Resolution LPCM and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks permit the detail and rich textures of the music, conducted by George Benjamin himself, to be fully experienced. The video transfer and editing is superb, presenting the 'film' in 'Cinemascope' widescreen, harnessing all the power of the direction and the effectiveness of Vicki Mortimer's production design, the camerawork also revealing the quality of the dramatic performances of the impressive exceptional cast. There's a short 5-minute 'Introduction' to the opera and a Cast Gallery in the extras, and Oliver Mears interviews Benjamin and Crimp in the enclosed booklet.

Links: Royal Opera House