|George Benjamin at his writing desk. Photo :Matthew Lloyd, courtesy Askonas Holt|
Musically brillliant, dramatically inert ? First thoughts on the world premiere of George Benjamin's Lessons in Love and Violence at the Royal Opera House. Something wonderful happened when Bejnjamin teamed up with Martin Crimp the poet. It's no accident that The Boy in Written on Skin was an illuminator, meticulously gilding and polishing his work to perfection. And so he might have continued but for events unfolding around him. A lot like George Benjamin himself ! Working with Martin Crimp unlocked something in Benjmain. His first opera, Into the Little Hill was radically different from anything Benjamin - or indeed anyone else - had done before. It's an astonishing bizarre work, at once anarchic and disturbing. As if arising straight from the subconcious it defies logic yet is highly intuitive and emotionally true. (Please read more here). Written on Skin was more ambitious yet also slightly more conventional, following a vaguely realistic narrative. Both operas deal with creativity and destruction, sexuality and repression, conflicts and pointless non-resolution. In some ways, Lessons in Love and Violence continues the saga, through different characters If anything, Benjamin's writing is even more assured and asssertive : daring crescendi, screaming chords, quirky combinations of instrumental colour that are more expressive than words alone could ever be. But why does it feel like a remake of Written on Skin ?
In Lessons in Love and Violence, we again have a dominant male figure bumbling his way ineptly through the lives of others, with horrific repercussions. Based loosely on Christopher Marlowe's play Edward II, the opera reflects upon the relationship between Edward and Piers Gaveston,and the court around them. As The King (Stéphane Degout) sings the first scena, ."Money... money...money", a symbol of something more in this intensely psychological approach to the drama. Fathers dictate what should happen to sons, kings dictate what should happen to subjects, sons become Kings themselves and so the cycle of love and violence continues. The first scene is dominated by an enormous tank of (real) tropical fish, swimming aimlessly in an unnatural environment. A metaphor for life in this kingdom ? The tank must weigh several tons, and is being slowly rotated by stage machinery at the Royal Opera House, which has often been used extremely effectively. But it is extraordinarily extravagant as stage prop. For such a relatively obvious statement, the expoense is way out of proportion. But perhaps that is the point : ludicrously extreme solutions for problems that coul;d be resolved in other ways. Crimp's libretto doesn't define what "entertainment" the Queen will witness at the end of the drama. But we know what is supposed to have happened to Piers Gaveston. (and those who don't, will have nothing on which to vent their self righteous indignation).
Benjamin constructs Lessons in Love and Violence as a series of tableaux, divided by orchestral interludes which serve as "curtains" separating each section. These provide a formal structure, and operate as commentary, expressing more through abstract music than can be said in the text. Benjamin's writing in these interludes is even more impressive and sophisticated than in the scenes themselves, where he is constrained to some extent by the need to write for voice. In the interludes, he creates astonishing orchestral colours, varied and tantalizingly elusive. Low timbred brass and winds howl and growl, lines rising forth, grasping out into nothingness. Two off stage harps plus what sounds like a zither sing sad exotic songs. At other moments strange sounds emerge, deliberately throwing you off track, like the twists in the plot. With a story like this, you're supposed to feel ill at ease and uncertain. Bows are beaten against wood, augmented by unpitched percussion, creating "primitive" effects, which intensify the rising sense of tension and violence as the narrative draws to its gruesome end. Lessons in Love and Violence would work extremely well as symphony and might well be best heard semi-staged. I would love to study it audio-only to better appreciate its depths.
Therein, though, lies the problem. Though the structure Benjamin uses is beautiful, like a series of miniature paintings in an illuminated album, it is also stylized and creates a sense of emotional disengagement. It's as if we're observing specimens from a distance :the idea of fish in fish tanks, again. Nothing wrong with stylization, per se. It was a feature of Greek tragedy, and is relevant to the wider implications of this tragedy, too. Thus the vocal lines are semi-abstract too, reflecting Crimp's background as poet. Some charcaters are fully fleshed, like The King (Stéphane Degout) and Gaveston (Gyula Orendt) and Mortimer (Peter Hoare), helped by very strong performances, by singers who are also instictive actors. The role of Isabel, the Queen, might well have been written expressly to suit Barbara Hannigan, who sang The Woman in Written On Skin. The part of Isabel makes the most of Hannigan's ability to project coloratura lines. At times she sounded like a soprano clarinet with an extended range. Something to marvel at, though the character itself isn't specially developed. The Woman in Written on Skin at least found her identity. "I am Agnès" she cried, "I am not a child!" Maybe Isabel is a plot device, a foil to the other characters. Still, having Hannigan on board ensures the success of this opera, and adds variety in an otherwise all-male cast. There are small roles for other women (one of them particulary striking) and for younger singers, like Samuel Boden as the King’s son.
Staging a stylized opera is a specialist genre in itself. Unlike verismo, where letting it all hang out is a good thing, in stylization, less can be more. At times, Lessons in Love and Violence seems to teeter on the edge of Pelléas et Mélisande. It's as if the starving peasants Yniold spots outside the castle have breached its defences. Benjamin's music broods and seethes with barely suppressed violence. It can't be easy to reconcile stylization with angry crowd scenes, but I'm not really sure about Katie Mitchell's direction. There are very good moments, such as when the younger actors move in slow motion, suggesting the passage oif time. Almsot like a silent movie !(Movement director Joseph Alford). But there's a little too much stage decoartion for its own sake, large portraits, big beds, bookcases etc. (designs by Vicki Mortimer). Perhaps it's not Mitchell's fault. London audiences seem to need lots to look at so they don't have to think. The enormous fish tank disappeared after the second section. It almost stole the show, so removing it removed a distraction from Benjamin's drama in music. Benjamin himself conducted which made the music even more special.