“...an unassailable command of storytelling” Boston Globe

George Benjamin’s 2018 opera Lessons in Love and Violence has been praised by critics following its US concert premiere at the Tanglewood Festival on 8 August. The composer conducted the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. The New York Times (David Allen) described Benjamin’s score in glowing terms: “Short of Alban Berg, few composers have been able to make abject brutality sound so exquisite, even so tender as Benjamin does here, his use of silence as intentional as his careful etching of textures around the voices.” “Benjamin and Crimp both have an unassailable command of storytelling”, said the Boston Globe.

The cast was made up of Tanglewood Music Centre Vocal Fellows: soprano Elizabeth Polese (Isabel), baritone Nathaniel Sullivan (the King), baritone Dominik Belavy (Gaveston), tenors Daniel McGrew and Edmond Rodriguez (Mortimer and the Boy); Meredith Wohlgemuth, Claire McCahan and Jack Canfield took the supporting roles.

Concert performances of Lessons will tour to Cologne, Dortmund, Essen and Brussels in Spring 23, with Benjamin conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra Academy and a cast including Evan Hughes and Georgia Jarman. Meanwhile, two of the opera’s co-commissioners, the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Madrid’s Teatro Real, are in the process of rescheduling their performances of the original Kate Mitchell production due to the pandemic. A second production – directed by Evgeny Titov and starring Jeanine De Bique – will open at Opernhaus Zürich in May 2023, when Ilan Volkov will conduct.

There is music that seethes and soothes — its every last, creepy twang of a cimbalom or bludgeon of brass conceived and executed with flawless clarity of gesture and precision of timbre. Yet somehow this jewel-studded, velvet-wrapped mace of a score never once feels too deliberately methodical or sounds anything but fully alive. Its imposing rigor scalds in the heat of the murderous moment. Listen to it, and you might ask yourself which of these two unsparing operas is supposed to be Benjamin’s masterpiece. For if Written on Skin disappeared, Lessons would be sufficient to anoint its composer all on its own. Despite the medieval setting, the core conceit […] has a Machiavellian timelessness to it. […] You would be glad, though gladdening this opera is not, to hear a performance as strong as Monday’s in any major house […] the orchestra was the star. Benjamin conducted it with his customary, graceful efficiency. […] There is an unerring flow to Lessons […] yet it is Benjamin’s merciless ability to hunt down the most specific of sounds that makes him such a potent dramatist. A desperately longing solo horn, fraught with desire, plays as Gaveston relates how the King likes to hold his hand over a flame […] Gaveston gets the grisliest death of all, nothing like the horrifying tower of dissonance that accompanies the killing of the King, but one that we have to imagine in absentia, as the powerless ruler reads the details of his lover’s death from a letter while a percussionist taps out a rhythm on the rim of a side drum. You might hear in that the loneliness of Gaveston, or the dread of a King confronting the passage of time before his own, sure murder. I heard cockroaches, scurrying around the dead. Either way, what in any other composer’s hands could be predictable, Benjamin makes magical.

The New York Times (David Allen), 10 August 2022

…there was zero fluff in the music or the text. Every gesture had its significance, every action its reaction. Benjamin and Crimp both have an unassailable command of storytelling; tension built without respite to a searing denouement. [...] The orchestration was dense but not overcrowded, and the sonic palette gave it an otherworldly quality that was sometimes dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish — here the hollow sound of a cimbalom and a hushed ripple of winds, there the infernal bleat of a contrabass trombone. “Drumming, I can hear drumming,” baritone Nathaniel Sullivan sang as the imprisoned King hallucinated in the penultimate scene. The only sounds that came from the orchestra were startlingly harsh snaps of the harp’s strings on top of a muted, ominous breeze from the double basses and cymbals.

The cast, made up of vocal fellows and recent alumni, turned out a powerhouse performance of the technically and challenging opera with no true innocent characters. I left feeling both disquieted and dazzled, as if I had just broken open a geode and only gotten a glimpse of the riches within. Now when can I get a second look?

The Boston Globe (A.Z. Madonna), 9 August 2022.