Lessons in Love and Violence

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.

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Five operas from the last fifty years

BDDefinition-TheMinotaur-a-1080-600x337Lisa Hirsch asked on Twitter the other day for suggestions for the five most important operas written since 1965 (i.e. in the last fifty years).  It’s a really interesting question and I pinged off a quick, semi-considered response.  Thinking about it some more I think I would stick with my choices.  (Obviously I haven’t seen every eligible opera but it surprises me a bit how many I have seen live or on DVD).  So here are my picks:

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Addicted to purity and violence

In George Benjamin’s Written on Skin The Man, The Protector, is described as “addicted to purity and violence”.  One could perhaps say the same about the score.  Seeing it presented in a minimally staged version at Roy Thomson Hall last night perhaps emphasised those aspects compared to watching a fully staged version (review of Katie Mitchell’s production at the ROH here).  Being able to see the conductor and orchestra made the combination of a traditional orchestra with older instruments; viola da gamba, glass harmonica etc (and lots of percussion) more obvious.  The music can be very violent but it can also be incredibly quiet and it’s a measure of Benjamin’s skill as a conductor that through these extreme changes of dynamics he rarely, if ever, covered his singers.

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Bejun Mehta, Christopher Purves and Barbara Hannigan in the ROH production

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Beating the blahs

GroundhogThere’s 20cm of snow on the ground and more forecast.  The groundhog consensus is a long winter.  So, here are a few upcoming concerts and other events that may help get you through the rest of the winter.

On February 17th mezzo Janina Baechle, violist Keith Hamm and pianist Rachel Andrist are performing works by Mahler, Brahms and Leoffler in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at noon.  Also in the RBA at noon on the 19th there is the annual concert featuring artists from the Ensemble Studio and Montreal’s YAP the Atelier lyrique.  And on the 24th, but at 5.30pm Barbara Hannigan and others are presenting works by Chausson and Schoenberg.  All these concerts are free.

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Make him cry blood

Written on Skin; music by George Benjamin, text by Martin Crimp, was first seen at the Aix en Provence festival in 2012.  The following yewar it was given, in the same production by Katie Mitchell and with substantially the same cast, at Covent Garden. Both versions were televised and now the ROH version has been released on DVD and Blu-ray.  It’s an unusual, complex and rewarding work.  21st century angels decide, for reasons not entirely clear, to return to the 13th century to create and participate in a human drama.  The medieval humans are The Protector; a rich man of mature years utterly confident of his privileged position and his own righteousness, and his wife Agnès; younger, illiterate, downtrodden.  Into their world comes The Boy; one of the angels in fact, who will create for The Protector an illuminated book; a precious object celebrating his wealth and worthiness.  Inevitably, The Boy and Agnès fall in love and The Protector’s revenge, whipped up by the angels, is quite revoltingly violent.  It’s essentially a simple and classic plot but Crimp shapes it skilfully with carefully placed anachronisms and by using the device of having the characters, sometimes, narrate their own actions in the third person.  Benjamin’s score is in a modern idiom.  He’s not afraid of atonality and he uses a very wide range of colours to create a score that ranges from meditational to almost unbearably violent.  Certainly words and music work together here to great effect.

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