Lessons in Love and Violence is a compelling new opera

Lessons in Love and Violence by George Benjamin and Martin Crimp
The Royal Opera
Royal Opera House, London

Lessons in Love and Violence is the second opera by George Benjamin and Martin Crimp following their sensational Written on Skin, which premiered in 2012 and has been acclaimed as one of the great opera of the 21st century as well as the most performed.

Director Katie Mitchell and designer Vicki Mortimer, who were involved with Written on Skin, were also part of this creative team.

The opera focuses on King Edward II’s relationship with Piers Gaveston, the Earl of Cornwall (one the titled currently held by the Prince of Wales), which is compromising the life of the court, his marriage and the political wellbeing of the country. Roger Mortimer, who takes Queen Isabel as his lover, turns against the king and, the results are deadly for Gaveston and Edward. In his play about the pair, Marlow had Gaveston beheaded and Edward disembowelled with a red-hot poker but, in this version, we just get a blood-soaked sheet. While there is implied guts and gore the opera focuses on the personal, political and psychological themes.

The story links the problems created by a dysfunctional royal family along with corrosive effects of the king's edgy sexual and psychological relationship with his lover. There is also a theme in which the court, the king, queen and Gaveston see art as more important than the lives of the populace and, in one scene, Queen Isabel dissolves a pearl in a glass of vinegar while she mocks the crowd of poor citizens, saying that the pearl could have fed them for a year.

Martin Crimp’s libretto is fast paced, a combination of the poetic and the declamatory and verging on the melodramatic. Thankfully the libretto is provided in surtitles so the subtly and wit of the words can be fully appreciated.

Benjamin and Crimp create atmosphere and dramatic emotional encounter with concise musical motifs and sharp strident language.

Stéphane Degout and Gyula Orendt are faultless as the King and Gaveston, their voices entwining around each other. Peter Hoare presented a finely layered Mortimer and Sam Boden as Edward’s son provided an intelligent character. As Isabel, Barbara Hannigan was able to give extraordinary depth to the role, combining a sense of repressed sexuality and power.

The work, which is staged in contemporary setting and clothes, feels as though there are continual references to contemporary political and social events, of a society and family sliding into the abyss. On stage this is indicated by a large aquarium of bright swimming fish taking centre stage in the first half but in the second half it is seen as a dead and decayed environment

Future Royal Opera House productions: June 9-19, Swan Lake; June 10-23, Lohengrin; June 16-July 20, La Boheme; and June 29-July 16, Don Giovanni.

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