Sunday 27 May 2018

George Benjamin & Martin Crimp's Lessons in Love and Violence

Stéphane Degout as King and Gyula Orendt as Gaveston in Lessons in Love and Violence, The Royal Opera © 2018 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
Stéphane Degout and Gyula Orendt in Lessons in Love and Violence,
© 2018 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
George Benjamin, Martin Crimp Lessons in Love and Violence; Stéphane Degout, Gyula Orendt, Barbara Hannigan, Peter Hoare, dir: Katie Mitchell, cond: George Benjamin; Royal Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 26 May 2018 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A powerful and thought-provoking study in the complexity of human relations

Barbara Hannigan & Peter Hoare in Lessons in Love and Violence, The Royal Opera © 2018 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
Barbara Hannigan & Peter Hoare
© 2018 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
George Benjamin and Martin Crimp's new opera Lessons in Love and Violence is a significant departure from the previous two (Into the little hill and Written on skin) for a start Crimp's language is more direct without any of the third-person obliqueness of the previous two operas, and the subject matter is based on history rather than fable. But, as with the previous two, Lessons in Love and Violence packs a powerful and concentrated punch.

Katie Mitchell's production of Lessons in Love and Violence, designed by Vicki Mortimer, debuted earlier this month and we caught the last performance. George Benjamin conducted, with Stéphane Degout as the King, Barbara Hannigan as Isabel his Queen, Gyula Orendt as Gaveston, Peter Hoare as Mortimer, Samuel Boden as the boy / young King and the actor Ocean Barrington-Cook as the girl.

Loosely based on the story of Edward II and Piers Gaveston, Crimp's libretto gives us seven terse scenes (lasting around 90 minutes without an interval) in which we witness the disintegration of the King's power owing to Gaveston's unpopularity, Gaveston's death, Isabel's growing relationship with Mortimer, and the young King's ultimate triumph in killing Mortimer.

It is a bleak, rather terrible work with a clear-sighted view of human frailties. None of the people involved is particularly admirable and whilst Crimp and Benjamin enable us to see different points of view (this is certainly not a narrative which puts Edward II and Gaveston at its centre), I don't think that we ever really like any of them.

The King and Gaveston's relationship is an intense one, yet seemingly based on pain, whilst it is clear early on that while little is made of Gaveston's sex (the main complaint is the way he and the King spend money), Mortimer is clearly troubled by the same-sex element. And despite the many strides we have made, it was still very powerful seeing two mainstream opera singers depicting and unashamedly same-sex relationship on the Royal Opera House stage, including a number of remarkable clinches (would that directors were a bit more daring in period operas such as Verdi's Don Carlos)

Ocean Barrington-Cooke, Barbara Hannigan, Stephane Degout, Samuel Bodenin Lessons in Love and Violence, The Royal Opera © 2018 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
Ocean Barrington-Cooke, Barbara Hannigan, Stephane Degout, Samuel Boden
© 2018 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
It is Benjamin's music which fleshes this out, as it rightly should. We plunge straight in, no overture, but between the scenes there are entractes which lead us from one scene to another. The sound world is rich and seductive, there is a lot of percussion as well as instruments such as the cimbalom. Benjamin creates different sound worlds for each of his characters, and for the various scenes, the score is a richly complex layering. At times violent and dissonant, the vocal writing is always sympathetic and expressive and Benjamin's skill shows in the way the vocal music flows naturally without any sense of him having to make way for the voices (or the singers having to scream). Overall it is a very tense work, but there are tender moments, much of the orchestral writing is lyrically beautiful the scene with the King and the stranger sent to kill him (Gyula Orendt) is surprisingly lyrical and tender.

The libretto uses a series of different locations, but Katie Mitchell has chosen to set the entire opera in the King's bedroom, with Vicki Mortimer imaginatively rotating the room between each scene so that we see it from a variety of angles. The whole production is modern dress, with some very stylish clothes for men and women (and a series of killer heels for Barbara Hannigan). I found the production, at times, a little too over busy and would be interested to see the piece in a more abstract, rather less time-specific setting and one which concentrated on the protagonists, rather than having a lot of non-singing supers.

The performances were outstanding. Neither Stephane Degout nor Gyula Orendt is a native English speaker but both sang with comprehensible and powerful English (which is not to decry the fine diction of the rest of the cast, we barely needed subtitles). Degout was wonderful at showing the sheer ineffectuality of the King, as he sought to simply isolate himself from his kingdom. Gyula Orendt was powerfully sexy as Gaveston, narrating with great relish the moments when the King caused him deliberate (and evidently delicious) pain, the two barely able to keep away from each other. Barbara Hannigan traced Isabel's journey from the problem of dealing with her husband and his lover, to her relationship with Mortimer and his outright rebellion.  Peter Hoare's Mortimer was one of those easily dislikable but extremely upright people.

Barbara Hannigan, Stephane Degout, Gyula Orendt in Lessons in Love and Violence, The Royal Opera © 2018 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
Barbara Hannigan, Stephane Degout, Gyula Orendt in Lessons in Love and Violence,
The Royal Opera © 2018 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey
The King and Isabel's children, the boy and the girl (Samuel Boden and Ocean Barrington-Cook) were on stage for most of the time and it was clear that the lessons in love and violence were to be learned by the boy, for his transformation into the young King. The final scene, showing his complete transformation as he describes the killing of Mortimer to his mother.

George Benjamin conducted a superb account of the score with the orchestra of the Royal Opera House creating a magical series of sonorities yet also bringing out Benjamin's trade-mark clarity in his orchestrations.

I have to confess that Lessons in Love and Violence is an opera I need to see again, one showing is not enough to deal with its complexity. In the programme book, both Crimp and Benjamin talk about the need for concision, but I did wonder whether the opera could have been longer (with an interval). At the end, I did not feel that we knew any of the characters entirely well, and longed for things to be a little more developed. But it is certainly a powerful and thought-provoking piece.

Director: Katie Mitchell
Designer: Vicki Mortimer
Lighting designer: James Farncombe
Movement director: Joseph Alford
Conductor: George Benjamin
King: Stéphane Degout
Isabel: Barbara Hannigan
Gaveston / Stranger: Gyula Orendt
Mortimer: Peter Hoare
Boy / Young King: Samuel Boden
Girl: Ocean Barrington-Cook
Witness 1 / Singer 1 / Woman 1: Jennifer France
Witness 2 / Singer 2 / Woman 2: Krisztina Szabó
Witness 3 / Madman: Andri Björn Róbertsson

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  • Musical style is like a language: I chat to German composer Moritz Eggert  - Interview
  • Alan Rawsthorne - a portrait: Chamber music and woodwind concertos (★★★) - CD review
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  • Te Deum: Purcell & Charpentier at Westminster Abbey for London Festival of Baroque Music (★★★★) - Concert review
  • All-star Orfeo - Iestyn Davies and Sophie Bevan at the London Festival of Baroque Music (★★★★)  - Concert review
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  • The story of a journey: Roderick Williams & Christopher Glynn in Schubert's Winter Journey  (★★★★★) - CD review
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