Lessons in Love and Violence

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Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (venue)

10 May 2018 (released)

13 May 2018

Based on the relationship between Edward II (killed in 1327) and courtier Piers Gaveston and with a tip to Christopher Marlowe’s 1594 play, Martin Crimp and George Benjamin’s Lessons in Love and Violence is their follow up to their successful first full-length debut Written on Skin in 2012. That was so successful that Lessons in Love and Violence has been co-commissioned by seven opera companies. No pressure there then.

To start with it is beautifully staged. Katie Mitchell’s production from Vicki Mortimer’s designs sets the action in blue coloured boardroom/bedroom, with paintings and decorations that decay or disappear as the opera progresses and Edward II (just referred to as King and played by Stéphane Degout) starts to lose control of his kingdom and fully come to terms with his banishment of Mortimer (Peter Hoare) and the aftermath of his relationship with Gaveston (Gyula Orendt).

These subtle changes are at odds with Martin Crimp’s text which makes it points – queen Isabel (Barbara Hannigan) luxury in dissolving pearls in vinegar a la Cleopatra while the population starve - too often over blends the themes of power, love and family, so there’s some narrative stumbling.

Benjamin’s music on the other hand is more attuned to the acting and the setting. It doesn’t quite rob all the attention from the performers but it could very well work on its own without the need for a set or the singing.

As such the overall performance feels fractured with the slow motion dragging and methodic in places. This is technically challenging, though unengaging. It actually never becomes that emotionally engaging but what little there is comes to the fore in the second part when the King’s son and daughter are forced to confront their father, and mother’s decisions and actions, with their own.

The individual performances are robust Hoare is a nasty piece of work as Mortimer and with Samuel Boden asserting himself latterly as Edward III to be. A mention for Ocean Barrington-Cook who is mute throughout but make her presence felt as the opera progresses. The principals (if that is fair to say) of Degout, Orendt and Hannigan are sublime.

There’s a convention in the rock world that second albums, after a successful debut are ‘difficult’. This could be down to the expectations of matching sales, the ideas or both. That convention doesn’t translate seamlessly to Crimp and Benjamin but Lessons in Love and Violence was hotly anticipated and a lot of expectation piled on it. Too much and possibly unfairly. Nevertheless, it’s here and it’s an interesting and challenging piece of work. It’s not immediate by any means but does have elements that settle in the mind and one feels that true enjoyment and fulfilment could come with repeated viewings.

Photograph courtesy of Stephen Cummiskey and the Royal Opera House.

Lessons in Love and Violence continues 15, 18, 24 and 26 May

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