BENJAMIN Lessons in Love and Violence
How many composers in history could claim that their latest opera had productions booked in six countries before it had even been seen? That was George Benjamin’s good fortune when Lessons in Love and Violence was given its premiere last May, such was the reputation of its predecessor, Written on Skin.
In many ways this new opera seeks to repeat the earlier success. Benjamin has stayed faithful to his librettist, Martin Crimp, who has written another spare text, dense in suggestive meanings. Some of the same collaborators are back, notably soprano Barbara Hannigan and director Katie Mitchell; and, most important, the opera again explores how a forbidden love can lead to acts of horrific violence, a theme that is evidently close to the creators’ hearts.
A sense of déjà vu is not necessarily a bad thing. Benjamin and Crimp had already proved that they can produce work of exceptional quality and that is true again of Lessons in Love and Violence. At just 90 minutes, this is an opera of impressive concentration with not a word or note wasted.
Any doubts lie elsewhere. Before the premiere Hannigan let slip that the opera ‘isn’t a laugh a minute’, and she was not joking. Crimp’s libretto is based on the downfall of Edward II, but what really interests him is the timeless myth of how power corrupts, and the opera peers into a black hole of morality, from which not the slightest glimmer of hope is allowed to escape.
In the telling of this oppressive story Benjamin and Crimp are as one. Like Crimp’s text, the music is a model of clarity on the surface, while suggesting an undercurrent of evil, which wells up powerfully in the interludes. Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande lurks in the background, not least for its interplay of light and darkness, and with Benjamin himself as conductor the orchestral playing is precision-tuned. Katie Mitchell’s gleamingly modern production is also all of-a-piece and has been filmed with an extra camera to eavesdrop on the political scheming from far above the characters’ heads.
Everyone in the cast fits perfectly, headed by the double act of King and Gaveston, sung by Stéphane Degout and Gyula Orendt, seemingly two sides of the same person. Hannigan is outstanding as the Queen, who humiliates a delegation of the starving poor in one of the opera’s most chilling scenes. Peter Hoare is his dramatically astute self as power-hungry Mortimer.
Nobody in this story is at all sympathetic and that goes even for the King’s young son, the well-cast Samuel Boden, who inaugurates the next generation of blood-letting in the closing minutes. The lessons in love and violence are his. Or maybe, as we witness these harrowing events, they are really pointed at us. Here is an opera to chill the blood, but not, I think, one to love.