'Operatic mastery': Benjamin's Lessons in Love and Violence premieres at Covent Garden

PR8A2485 Barbara Hannigan as Isabel, Stéphane Degout as King and Gyula Orendt as Gaveston (C) ROH. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey.jpg
Lessons in Love and Violence, George Benjamin's third opera to words by Martin Crimp, premiered at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 10 May 2018, with the the New York Times describing it as a 'significant contribution to the art form' and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung hailing it as a 'haunting symbiosis of words and music' that 'seethes with violence and sensuality'.
 
Delving into the dark and turbulent events of Edward II's life and death, the 100-minute opera is directed by Katie Mitchell, with designs by Vicki Mortimer, and features baritone Stéphane Degout, soprano Barbara Hannigan, baritone Gyula Orendt, tenor Peter Hoare, tenor Samuel Boden, soprano Jennifer France, mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, and bass-baritone Andri Björn Róbertsson. The opera runs at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden until 26 May. More details can be found here.
 
Lessons in Love and Violence is co-commissioned and co-produced with Dutch National Opera (June 2018), Hamburg State Opera (April 2019), Opéra de Lyon (May 2019), Lyric Opera of Chicago (Autumn 2020), Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona (March 2021) and Teatro Real, Madrid (April/May 2021).

 

‘A raucous beauty… Benjamin and Crimp have done it again... Without pandering, they’ve made another significant contribution to the art form.'

The New York Times (Anthony Tommasini), 11 May 2018

 

‘This haunting symbiosis of words and music seethes with violence and sensuality…'
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Gina Thomas), 14 May 2018

 

‘This opera carries the lyric art to a rare degree of accomplishment.’
Diapason (Benoît Fauchet), 12 May 2018

 

'Refined, alive, virtuosic and  particularly lyrical in its magnificent interludes, Benjamin's writing [no comma here!] is of great suppleness and, dominated by bass clarinets, bassoons, trombones and great bursts of brass, it once again confirms his nature as a colourist… Like the elegant bourgeois tailoring she wears, the role of Isabel fits Hannigan – and her astonishing vocality - like a glove. If perversion inhabits the nothing if not diabolical Gaveston of Orendt... it is all the better to provoke and seduce: to provoke the angry Mortimer of Peter Hoare, for whom "love is a poison", and to seduce the king, Stéphane Degout, a striking figure of loneliness, whose natural authority (audible in his brilliant tone of black mica) does not prevent the drama’s vertiginous exploration of human torment.’
Le Monde (Marie-Aude Roux), 22 June 2018

 

‘Benjamin’s new work once again shows his operatic mastery. Crimp knows how to leave room for music to amplify his points – which Benjamin’s fascinating score does with boundless technical skill and unceasing eloquence.’
The Stage (George Hall), 11 May 2018

 

‘A masterly score… capturing the nature of the action in ravishing, suspended sonorities, constantly beguiling the ear and teasing the imagination.’

The Evening Standard (Barry Millington), 11 May 2018

 

‘A raucous beauty… Benjamin and Crimp have done it again. Six years after the masterly Written on Skin, they have again dared to challenge audiences by remaining true to their uncompromising visions… The music, written and compellingly conducted by Benjamin, is unapologetically modernist, while the libretto, by Crimp, is often cryptic. Without pandering, they’ve made another significant contribution to the art form.

As with Written on SkinLessons in Love and Violence looks to the past for contemporary resonances. Mining the historical relationship between King Edward II and Piers Gaveston, the opera doesn’t seize on the story for a polemic on behalf of gay love. Aided by Mitchell’s modern-dress production, Crimp and Benjamin have made something more ambiguous and timeless: a tale of a leader’s catastrophic conflation of his personal desires with the identity of his suffering country… At one point we see the King and Gaveston entwined in a romantic embrace just before an audience arrives to see a play. Their insinuating, sensual lines unfold together, but the musical effect is not exactly contrapuntal: the two voices sound almost codependent… In the Queen, Benjamin has created another remarkable role for Hannigan’s immense vocal gifts and comprehensive musicianship. He writes lines that shift from earthy emotionalism to angelic purity, knowing that this artist can handle those pivots. He takes advantage of her focused intonation and rhythmic precision to lend even anguished passages structural strength… It’s Benjamin’s remarkable music that gives the work its charge: The writing is so lush, haunting and detailed — radiant one moment, piercingly dissonant the next — that you are continuously enveloped by the raucous beauty of the sounds. As the opening scene begins, needling brass riffs protrude over sputtering clusters of hard-edged chords. Sometimes a bed of strings will swell with a prolonged sonority, though the component notes are too restless to stay put. Instrumental lines emerge from atmospheric murmurs, trying to coalesce into melodic fragments.

Crimp’s text, as in Written on Skin, is enigmatic. “You know where I am: inside your life,” Gaveston tells the King. Early on, the King warns Mortimer, who is clearly drawn to the queen, that wherever Mortimer touches the “immaculate surface” of Isabel’s skin, “your politics will leave streaks of my blood.” Benjamin savours the strangeness of these words. He was determined, he says in an interview in the program book, to set the text so that it would be audible. He does so impressively, aided by the crisp diction of the singers, often by following the natural rhythms of speech. But he knows when to allow a vocal line to turn mellifluous.

The New York Times (Anthony Tommasini), 11 May 2018

 

‘This haunting symbiosis of words and music seethes with violence and sensuality… Delicate flitting passages mix glowing colours with exotic cimbalom sounds, strange chirping harps and nervous, tone-painterly swells... [Written on Skin] has established the reputation of Benjamin as one of today’s leading composers. Building on this breakthrough, six international houses have participated in the staging of Lessons in Love and Violence alongside Covent Garden, in what is an almost unsurpassed expression of trust … Benjamin and Crimp continue to develop the theme of the ominous amalgamation of love, power, and art that their previous works already explored in their previous work together… The strength of the performance rests not only on the finely chiselled score, which the composer himself brings into being with great artistry from the podium, but also on the concerted interaction of creators and performers, coordinated to the last detail. … The cast was already fixed before the composition of the opera, and Benjamin has tailored his music to their voices.’

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Gina Thomas), 14 May 2018

 

‘Six years after the triumph of Written on Skin, one of the most fascinating and acclaimed operas of the century – with countless revivals and new productions, Benjamin reunites with Crimp for a new – and much awaited – creation… Once again the work draws its most immediate beauty from the musical writing. Benjamin impresses with his mastery of a large orchestra including percussion and harps, and a cimbalom which adds a touch of archaism and strangeness to the soundworld. A certain aerated material gives the impression of permanent instability, multiplying the instrumental combinations – the rare and unexpected sounds, the scratches – and sketching a mirror reflecting the torment of souls with a palette dominated by blackness and a thousand shades of grey. With no easy concessions to consonance or spectacular tutti writing, the composer once dubbed a young Mozart by his teacher Messiaen makes his harmonies resound with exemplary refinement… Under Benjamin’s pen, the singing finds an immediate capacity to touch the audience, especially as the composer has tailored each part to the specific voices involved… This opera carries the lyric art to a rare degree of accomplishment.’

Diapason (Benoît Fauchet), 12 May 2018

 

‘This complex and polysemous work enshrines Benjamin as one of the great opera composers of our time. Lessons in Love and Violence is a work as intimate as Written on Skin but, if anything, more cryptic, with a less linear development, less metaphorical… Benjamin renounces instrumental overtures and preludes and begins his work intensely with a scene in which all the protagonists appear and where, from the first note, the trigger for all subsequent events is posed… It is a kind of chamber theatre with music (often also on a chamber scale), with prominent interventions from two harps, celesta and cimbalom. Three bassoons, a contrabassoon, a bass clarinet and bass and contrabass trombones often darken the timbres of this black fable about dark love and a generous display of percussion instruments produce infinite and precise timbral effects... Among many other virtues, Benjamin is a prodigious orchestrator, though never ostentatious; everything is regulated with admirable restraint. There is nothing gimmicky about this new opera: it is concise, never morbid or prone to exaggeration. Identical virtues typify Benjamin’s conducting, at the head of an orchestra that seems surrendered to his genius from beginning to end… The opera, which plays without interval, takes place in a sigh, leaving perhaps a bittersweet taste: what has been seen has a formidable dramatic power... [the opera was] received by the audience of the premiere with an overflowing enthusiasm.’

El País (Luis Gago), 11 May 2018

 

‘Benjamin’s new opera introduces us to characters who “turn to the dark” and we follow them as they peer into the abyss. … His music, like Crimp’s words, is at once brilliantly clear and full of half-suggested meanings. Pelléas et Mélisande lurks in the background, a benign influence casting rays of light into this world of moral darkness. Although Benjamin does not write conventional arias, it seems there is barely a line that this cast does not shape with beauty and expressiveness. Hannigan is outstanding, as ever, as Isabel. Degout and Orendt are well matched as the King and Gaveston/Stranger, the latter swathed in a mystic accompaniment. [The opera has]… the most gripping concentration, enough to make an audience hold its breath for long stretches at a time.’

The Financial Times (Richard Fairman), 11 May 2018

 

‘Benjamin’s new work once again shows his operatic mastery. Crimp knows how to leave room for music to amplify his points – which Benjamin’s fascinating score does with boundless technical skill and unceasing eloquence. The composer conducts an outstanding performance.’
The Stage (George Hall), 11 May 2018

 

‘A potent and beautiful account of Edward II's downfall. This new opera by Benjamin and Crimp looks set to prove another international success on the level of their previous collaborations. Lessons in Love and Violence intrigues and compels. Charged with music of exquisite beauty and a potent narrative, it is immaculately staged and performed. The artistry involved is consummate. Compared to Written in Skin, there are more overtly lyrical passages (especially in the erotic duets for the King and Gaveston), more vocal counterpoint (including some almost Verdian ensembles) and more bravura orchestral writing (in the interludes between the scenes). The pacing and balance are flawless. Benjamin’s great gift for crystalline clarity is also evident: I can’t think of a composer writing today who has the same ability to make the tiniest flourish or the simplest combination of instruments so richly expressive. There is no empty rhetoric in his music, no pointless excess, and yet it never seems to splutter: the flow is unimpeded.’
The Telegraph (Rupert Christiansen), 11 May 2018

 

‘A bleak, lustrous opera… The text is spare, its language more or less timeless, and fits easily into the 21st-century setting of Mitchell’s beautifully detailed production. There’s a pervading air of menace, but the drama’s implicit violence only becomes explicit in some of the orchestral interludes… There are some remarkable colours and effects – soaring horn lines, long, self-renewing melodic strands, pungent punctuations from cimbalom and wooden percussion. That is matched in some of Benjamin’s vocal writing, especially Isabel’s spiralling melismas , tailor-made for  Hannigan’s extraordinary agility, and the lustrous honeyed lines in the final scenes for the tenor Son (who becomes Edward III), beautifully delivered by Boden.’
The Guardian (Andrew Clements), 11 May 2018

 

‘A masterly score… capturing the nature of the action in ravishing, suspended sonorities, constantly beguiling the ear and teasing the imagination.’
The Evening Standard (Barry Millington), 11 May 2018

 

‘No weapon in music is more powerful than silence. Benjamin uses it with surgical skill… [In the opera’s third scene] 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 orchestral interludes between scenes [are] at times explosive, at others poetic, empathetic… Benjamin’s rich score 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… The cast is outstanding.’
The Observer (Fiona Maddocks), 19 May 2018

 

world where a kiss can be a betrayal, and a caress a murder, where taking away a man’s name or his crown can deprive him of his life. Symbolism is a high-stakes game, and no one plays it better, or with more rigorous control than Benjamin and Crimp. For over a decade now, and over the course of three collaborations, the composer and playwright have been teaching us their lessons – serving up operatic parables on power, politics, desire and the darkest urges of human nature to audiences that suddenly swelled from the fringe enthusiasts of Into the Little Hill to the crowds that have claimed Written On Skin as one of the greatest successes of 21st century opera … In a world of diffuse, often wilfully undramatic new operas it’s both a relief and a thrill to watch this taut show. Cast in an arch of seven discrete episodes plays out as a series of taut emotional tableaux. The spare, suggestive beauty of Crimp’s libretto and Benjamin’s music (which never states when it can imply, never implies where it can simply leave a dramatic door ajar) leaves room for the audience, and having been invited into their cruel world it’s almost impossible to leave. The third-person narration has gone. Storytelling has become a more straightforward transaction, and Benjamin’s musical language has responded in turn with a more sustained, string-based lyricism that could be described as sensuous were it not so coldly, forbiddingly beautiful… Crimp’s obsession with the “machine” of state politics finds echo in music that ticks and clicks and – devastatingly – stutters and stops altogether on the word “dead” during the king’s assassination. Raging against that machine with every coaxing bar he sings, Gaveston stills and suspends time, creating its own seductive temporality.

The cast list reads like a dream, and it’s one sustained in performance. Degout’s King – pliant in scenes with Orendt’s Gaveston (Benjamin doing here for male-voice duets what Strauss did for female), but quietly authoritative elsewhere – holds the centre, orbited by Hannigan’s brittle Isabel (whose horrid-beautiful pearl aria is a highlight), Boden’s Young King, caught between innocence and pitiless purity, and Hoare’s Mortimer – wild-eyed but horribly sane in his actions, spinning even the most grotesque logic into plausible, lovely phrases. Benjamin himself conducts a large orchestra, whose full force is (once again) only heard in the interludes between scenes – a loud, public intrusion into an essentially private drama that takes a political story and plays it out psychologically. Benjamin’s body politic is warm to the touch, stripped bare and left bruised and twitching by the end. There is no poker here because the authors have found a far more devastating, savage weapon: love itself. “Love makes us human,” the King asserts. “So,” corrects Mortimer, “does the need to kill.”

The Artsdesk (Alexandra Coghlan), 11 May 2018

‘The premiere of Lessons in Love and Violence was a triumph… this new opera is a sign of vitality [in the artform].’
The Evening Standard (Leader), 11 May 2018

‘Another masterpiece, darker and perhaps deeper still than Written on Skin…its intellectual brilliance and sensual wonders matched, at the very least, by its emotionally overwhelming dramatic path. [I was] drained and satisfied as if by Wozzeck or Katya Kabanova; or, the work that increasingly came to mind, Boris Godunov… Benjamin’s ability to create a sound world has always been one of his hallmarks… As with Wagner, still more so with the Debussy of Pelléas, so much action, so much of the truest, wordless action, occurs in the interludes, the transformations between scenes. It is perhaps in those, as in Pelléas, that the stature of Benjamin as a musical dramatist is most immediately manifest.'
Seen and Heard International (Mark Berry), 16 May 2018

Lessons represents a not inconsiderable refinement of Benjamin, Crimp and Mitchell’s craft, most notably in the score. Benjamin favours sparse orchestral textures: the orchestra has many instruments, but he often deploys just a few of them at a time, in constantly changing timbres, some of them unusual and vivid. His lines are short – it’s rare for the principal arc of a melodic phrase to be longer than half a dozen notes – but he can pack an exceptional amount of dark beauty into just those few notes... His vocal writing is never showy but always effective. The singers' diction is excellent, and in his joint role as composer and conductor, Benjamin makes absolutely sure that we can hear them; the music is constantly in the service of the action. Benjamin is particularly sure-footed in his changes of pace and mood. Benjamin’s wonderful score makes this a powerful dramatic experience from beginning to end.’
Bachtrack (David Karlin), 11 May 2018

‘A descending motif, marked out slowly on harps and cimbalom, is followed by a languid, gently syncopated line on the tombak… a kind of goblet drum and the main percussion instrument of Persian music. Benjamin is interested in the combination of instruments less because it conjures up a particular place or period than because it acts on the perception of time in the present… Auditorium and stage alike are drawn into the music’s altered temporality… The device is a more exaggerated version of a technique used throughout the score to set off musical systems against each other. Changes in underlying metre are accompanied by shifts of harmonic spectrum and timbre so that there is a sense of entire musical worlds confronting each other; that is ways of seeing and hearing the world which, in their greater or lesser degrees of compatibility with each other, provide the drama unfolding on stage with its framework… Though Benjamin’s music sounds entirely modern, his conception of his art is supremely old-fashioned, in that his interest lies exclusively in creating musical beauty. Any effects, whether colouristic or dramatic, are always understood through the prism of beauty, and his chief development in the last decade or so has been to realise, rather as Mozart did, just how powerful an engine of drama this prism can be… His new opera is different from the previous two primarily in that the composer’s confidence in the dramatic potential of his musical techniques has increased… There are no formal arias as such, but here the sense is all the stronger that the melodic line could erupt at any moment, producing aria-like refractions of the emotional drama. The music begins in the thick of the action, with a confrontation taken at fast pace, suspended briefly as the voices settle momentarily on resonant words… If the performances are polished in a brand-new work, it’s generally a good sign of its quality. Here, everyone shines brightly.’
The Times Literary Supplement (Guy Dammann), 18 May 2018

 

‘The title may separate its two concepts – Lessons in Love and Violence – but what we’re really unpicking here (what we’re always unpicking with these two authors) is the fleshy tangle of the two, the stubbornly indivisible. This is an opera built on the sliding panels of elision, metaphor and metonymy – a shifting 

‘Searing… This production has a dreamlike feel, sucking the audience into this king’s life-ruining romantic obsession. Orendt’s performance as the king’s lover is striking: sinuous, forceful... Crimp’s text is full of equally vivid imagery.’

TimeOut (Alice Saville), 11 May 2018