Lessons in Love and Violence review – a bolder, angrier, more tender George Benjamin

Royal Opera House, London
The transgressive love between Edward II and his courtier takes hold in George Benjamin’s rich, dark new opera

“Stop the music. I SAID STOP THE MUSIC NOW,” shouts the King in Lessons in Love and Violence, the latest collaboration between the composer George Benjamin and the playwright Martin Crimp, which has been given its world premiere by the Royal Opera, one of seven international companies to commission it. No weapon in music is more powerful than silence. Benjamin uses it, throughout this 90-minute work, with surgical skill.

The command comes in the midst of controlled chaos in the third of the opera’s seven scenes. The King, the Plantagenet Edward II, is engaged in a desperate inquiry about love with his adored adviser, Gaveston. Isabel, the queen, played with chilling hauteur by the indefatigable soprano Barbara Hannigan, enters with royal offspring, ready to bait her unfaithful husband. With near-farcical timing, courtiers bustle in to watch an entertainment. Two women are singing David’s lament for the death of Jonathan, from the Old Testament. All takes place in the royal bedchamber. No wonder the King loses his cool.

This sort of multilayered emotional pile-up is the stuff of opera. Public and private drama clash while different musical ideas play simultaneously. Think of the end of Act I of Tosca. Benjamin, not surprisingly, handles things entirely differently, reining in rather than spilling out, tightening harmony and counterpoint to breaking point. It’s a tense moment in a work that locks you in from its opening conflict – the King’s banishment of his political scourge, Mortimer. There is no let-up, no smile. It’s dark, callous.

The Royal Opera had a formidable success with the first two Benjamin/Crimp operas, the chamber-sized Into the Little Hill (2006) and Written on Skin (first staged at Aix-en-Provence in 2012). This new piece, using the same production team led by director Katie Mitchell and designer Vicki Mortimer, returns to the distant past as its wellspring. Christopher Marlowe’s 1594 play Edward II, stripped of dramatic and verbal flesh, provides a skeletal blueprint for Crimp’s short but verbose and oddly elliptical text.

If the words act as a straitjacket, Lessons in Love and Violence breaks free in Benjamin’s music, especially in the orchestral interludes between scenes, at times explosive, at others poetic, empathetic. It’s here that you find the warmth so absent in the text. Despite murder and blood, the violence is chiefly psychological. Mitchell’s use of slo-mo movement compounds the tableau effect. The “lessons” might also be called limits, in love, desire, transgression, political responsibility. Love itself is in short supply. Passions are icy, calculating or, in the case of the King towards Gaveston, abusive and wretched.

Peter Hoare (Mortimer), Gyula Orendt (Gaveston), Stéphane Degout (King) and Barbara Hannigan (Isabel) in Lessons In Love and Violence.
Peter Hoare (Mortimer), Gyula Orendt (Gaveston), Stéphane Degout (King) and Barbara Hannigan (Isabel) in Lessons In Love and Violence. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

In this modern-dress production, the King’s weakness is implied in the opening minutes when he changes his clothes in front of his court. “I am king,” he sings, impotent in his underpants. The fixed set, a box painted dark blue with a bed, some Bacon paintings and a large tank of shimmering, quivering tropical fish (Edward II kept a pet camel and a lion; who knew about fish?), is seen from different angles as the work progresses. This intensifies the claustrophobia. Eventually the tank is empty, leaving only a bare rock.

Benjamin’s rich score, which he himself conducts, is more ambitious than Written on Skin: bolder, angrier, more self-revealing, more tender. The large orchestra, dominated by low clarinets, bassoons and trombones, is used sparingly but with big, noisy brass outbursts. Each scene has a different musical identity. The work may be dissonant, but major and minor chords harness the action. Characters are loosely associated with leitmotifs or particular instruments. Early on, Mortimer (Peter Hoare) has a menacing aural joust with the twanging cimbalom, prominently used throughout. Four percussion players create atmosphere with some 40 different varieties of gong, drum, bells, cymbals, castanets, güiros, temple blocks.

The cast is outstanding: Hannigan alluring and manipulative; Stéphane Degout sympathetic and hapless as the King; Gyula Orendt overweening as the velvet-smooth Gaveston. Hoare’s Mortimer is sniping, self-righteous. Samuel Boden is firm yet delicate as the Boy/Young King. To witness a newborn opera is to meet a creation that alters with each encounter. I went on first and second nights (both of which were enthusiastically received). Passages that had seemed slow moved fast. Details in the score came into focus. The text remains unyielding yet already the music, or I, had changed. Let’s watch it grow.

Lessons in Love and Violence – trailer

Lessons in Love and Violence is in rep at the Royal Opera House, London, until 26 May


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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