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Sir George BENJAMIN (b. 1960)
Lessons in Love and Violence, opera in two parts to a text by Martin Crimp [88:00 + 5:00 extra/interview]
King - Stéphane Degout
Isabel - Barbara Hannigan
Gaveston/Stranger - Gyula Orendt
Mortimer - Peter Hoare
Boy/Young King – Samuel Boden
Girl – Ocean Barrington-Cook (non-singing role)
Witness 1/Singer 1/Woman 1 - Jennifer France
Witness 2/Singer 2/Woman 2 - Krisztina Szabó
Witness 3/Madman - Andri Björn Róbertsson
Orchestra of The Royal Opera House/George Benjamin
Directed by Katie Mitchell
Directed for the screen by Margaret Williams
rec. live 24 and 26 May 2018, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Sung in English
Audio formats LPCM 2.0 stereo and DTS surround 5.1
OPUS ARTE DVD OA1221D [93:00]

For a composer who used to be famous for a fastidious, time-consuming approach to composition – and a notoriously slow rate of production – it seems that George Benjamin has finally hit his stride in his 50s. Two full-length operas emerged in relatively quick succession. The first, Written On Skin, unquestionably a masterpiece, was universally lauded as such (read the MWI review of the Opus Arte DVD). Lessons in Love and Violence received similarly glowing notices at its premiere performances last Spring. It constitutes Benjamin’s third collaboration with librettist Martin Crimp; the first was the 40-minute chamber opera Into the Little Hill, premiered in 2006.

There are edited transcripts in the booklet of interviews conducted by Oliver Mears, the Director of the Royal Opera, with both composer and librettist. They each provide interesting perspectives on the creative processes involved and practical strategies deployed in making an opera from scratch. At the heart of these dialogues is a justification of the subject for this opera, the reign and demise of Edward II. I am sure I am not the only one whose school history lessons were enlivened by an enthusiastic teacher who traded in shock and awe and who was more than happy to ‘sex-up’ the fundamentals of this king’s story. Despite its title, Lessons in Love and Violence is not that sort of ‘schlock’ opera. As might be expected from Benjamin and Crimp, the focus is deeply psychological, and in this case the subject is the nature of love and its political consequences. As Crimp succinctly explains in the note: “…at the heart of it there is a man who dies for and of love… It has the opposite of the usual gender roles: it’s usually the woman who dies for love, but in this case it’s a man… this first line of the text ‘It’s nothing to do with loving a man, it’s love full stop that is poison’ just occurred to me and I set off from there… Rather than it being something exceptional, the opera takes love between men for granted as something that happens in the world… Love leads people to make decisions that are… possibly misguided… that’s the transgression that’s at the heart of the piece.” If Marlowe’s play Edward II acted as an inspirational trigger, Crimp’s text is in fact a very different beast.

The work is divided into two parts of four and three scenes respectively. I can tell you its 85 minutes fly by. The synopsis in the booklet is the barest I have ever seen – but it is all one needs. There is some tinkering with the characters’ nomenclature in that the names or titles of the specific historical protagonists upon whom this drama is based are altered to better reflect the modern setting, thus the four principal characters are the King (the baritone Stéphane Degout), his wife Isabel (go-to new opera madwoman/femme fatale/matriarch Barbara Hannigan), his lover Gaveston (Gyula Orendt) and his military advisor Mortimer (Peter Hoare) whose banishment at the outset of the opera triggers a sequence of calamitous events. There is also the Boy, the King’s son, sensitively played by Samuel Boden whose high tenor arguably projects the most ‘beautiful’ music for voice in the piece, and his sister, the ‘Girl’, whose silent role is especially intriguing.

The drama is unremittingly bleak and spare. It is set in one place, the Royal bedroom. If this suggests privacy and intimacy, think again. It is regularly full of people – Katie Mitchell employs a troupe of silent actors who constitute various ‘crowds’; of royal hangers-on, as ‘invited audiences’, as poverty-stricken citizens whose ire is directed towards the King for his apparently lavish spoiling of his lover at the expense of the destitution of the hoi-polloi. (Mitchell’s device is thus reminiscent of the onlookers/angels et al. in Written on Skin.) This bedroom then is a perfectly claustrophobic setting for the broadcast and public scrutiny, as it were, of the Royal household’s ‘dirty linen’. Crimp’s text trades in terse sentences, separated by loud silences. The dialogue is gravid with spite, threat, secrecy and horrific implication. In a bizarre coincidence, no sooner had I finished watching Lessons in Love and Violence for the second time than my TV automatically defaulted to a channel which happened to be broadcasting William Friedkin’s 1967 movie adaptation of Harold Pinter’s notorious debut play ‘The Birthday Party’. The parallels between Pinter and this opera are uncanny. In both cases what is unspoken (or unsung) regularly assumes greater significance than what is made manifest. To that end, the mute role of the ‘Girl’ (the King’s daughter) seems hugely important; she is more or less omnipresent on stage and has presumably experienced more harrowing ‘Lessons in Love and Violence’ at the hands of these pretty ghastly characters than would be good for anyone of her age. Small wonder then that her brother seems to be her protector throughout – both characters seem terribly traumatised and damaged. The ‘Girl’ is mesmerizingly played by Ocean Barrington-Cook – one of the advantages of seeing this opera on screen rather than in the theatre lies in the immediacy of the characters’ facial expressions. Barrington-Cook’s acting is of a very high order indeed. Her ‘Girl’ is a text-book case-study of Freudian repression.

In musical terms Benjamin’s remarkable ear for orchestral sonority never wavers. The music here seems more darkly coloured, more tentative, angrier in fact than in the previous two collaborations with Crimp. But there is still room for beauty. The brief orchestral interludes between the scenes foster some extraordinary sounds and colours. They are Bergian in origin , I suspect, and would perhaps combine to form a splendid operatic ‘suite’, but frankly I hope Benjamin resists the temptation – shorn of context I suspect it would amount to little more than a superficial showpiece. The percussion writing is tremendously refined and skilful, especially the tangy and original use of a cimbalom throughout the work. There is much superbly atmospheric writing for low brass and wind to boot.

In terms of the characters, apart from the children, only Stéphane Degout’s King really engenders any sympathy from the audience, and Degout’s lines increase in desperation and fragility as the work proceeds. Gyula Orendt’s Gaveston is appropriately malign and icy cold, his music appropriately brittle and disconnected, although the duets with Degout occasionally imply warmth; Benjamin’s writing for these two voices in combination is inspired and original. Peter Hoare’s turn as the scheming, besuited and bespectaled official Mortimer is quietly terrifying; he spits out his abrupt, calculated soundbites with an almost gleeful bile. Barbara Hannigan is brilliant in yet another role which is almost impossible to imagine being sung by anybody else. Her Isabel is by turns condescending, supercilious, and desperate; it is another mesmerising display.

Lessons in Love and Violence is utterly absorbing – the DVD production is riveting. Watching it a second time was like experiencing an entirely new piece, as so many clever visual details or aspects of Benjamin’s scintillating orchestration pass one by first time round; this reviewer’s ears and eyes can only absorb so much at once. The staging seems perfect, natural, unaffected; one’s appreciation of the performances only increases with familiarity. The 5.1 sound is brilliantly detailed, the Orchestra of the ROH clearly revel in Benjamin’s singularly inventive sound-world. If someone had predicted two decades ago that this particular composer would prove to be a scion of contemporary, big opera, I would have referred them urgently to a specialist. How wonderful it is that phenomena such as Written on Skin and Lessons in Love and Violence are so completely unforeseeable. Whatever next? A full length opera from György Kurtág? Pull the other one…

Richard Hanlon

Previous review (Blu-ray): Dave Billinge




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