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.
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.