George Benjamin’s latest opera Lessons in Love and Violence debuted at Covent Garden last year. It was broadcast on the BBC and is still available on the web from Arte and has also been released on DVD and Blu-ray. This review is based on the Blu-ray version.
It’s the same creative team as Written on Skin. Martin Crimp wrote the libretto and Katie Mitchell directs. It has similarities with Written on Skin. It’s a medieval story, though the production setting is contemporary, it’s a sort of morality play and it’s violent; sometimes shockingly so. It’s also quite poetic and Benjamin’s music is both demanding and satisfying. I do think he writes better for orchestra than voice, though Barbara Hannigan, as the queen, gets some tailor made mini-arias.
Lessons in Love and Violence tells the story of Edward II. At the start the country is suffering from the king’s neglect and his obsession with his acquisitive lover Piers Gaveston. The border magnate Roger Mortimer arranges the murder of Gaveston and the effective deposition of Edward in favour of his underage son though the queen, by now Mortimer’s lover, and Mortimer will rule. Edward III comes of age and disposes of Mortimer. The opera tells the story economically in a series of scenes set in the king’s bedroom. His two children are present throughout and we learn, finally, that it’s the young Edward who has, all too effectively, learned the lessons.
The production is starkly effective and it’s tension filled throughout; a tension brilliantly supported by the music that can go from brutal to sensuous and back at will. The performances are strong. Stéphane Degout is wonderfully blank as the uncomprehending king. Gyula Orendt is creepy as Gaveston and creepier still in his reincarnation as Death. Barbara Hannigan seems almost typecast as the somewhat unbalanced queen. Definitely shades here of her Ophelia with both febrile body language and exquisitely managed melismatic music. Samuel Boden is the young Edward. It’s a high tenor part and he manages to sound boyish in the early scenes but transformed to something quite different in the final scene; the first act of a long violent career showing that he’s the one the “lessons” are for and that they have been taken to heart. Peter Hoare plays Mortimer. It’s very fine. He ostensibly conveys the “voice of reason and responsibility” while simultaneously giving off an aura of extreme violence.
Supporting roles are played by Andri Björn Róbertsson; most notably as the madman who thinks his cat has proclaimed him king, Krisztina Szabó; who has one chilling scene where she pours the ashes of her dead baby over the king’s bed and Jennifer France. Ocean Barrington-Cook gives a remarkably mature performance in the silent role of Edward’s younger sister. The composer conducts the ROH orchestra.
It’s powerful and exceptionally well crafted but I didn’t enjoy it as much as Written on Skin. I think that’s because almost to the end I couldn’t find a character I cared about at all. Unlike Agnès and The Boy in the earlier work, who I found very sympathetic, I couldn’t muster much sympathy for the feckless king, the grasping Gaveston, the neurotic queen or the vicious Mortimer.
Margaret Williams video direction is a bit odd. There are rather a lot of shots taken from directly overhead. They are quite effective but it’s an odd way to watch an opera. Otherwise it’s pretty standard stuff except it’s presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio rather than standard 16:9. Both the DTS-HD-MA surround and the stereo sound tracks on the recording are very good. The disk includes quite interesting interviews by Clemency Burton-Hill with George Benjamin, Martin Crimp and Katie Mitchell. The booklet also includes a (different) interview with Benjamin and Crimp as well as a synopsis. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Japanese and Korean. As you can see from the screen caps the production is generally rather dark so I don’t know how well it would translate to DVD. Better opt for the Blu-ray.