‘Love is poison’, Mortimer tells the king in the first scene of Lessons in Love and Violence. The military adviser denounces his relationship with Gaveston, on whom he heaps favours while his subjects are starving. ‘Don’t bore me with the price of bread’ the king retorts. He rather treats his lover to poetry and music than to care for his people. ‘Love makes us human.’ In this third opera by composer George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp, however, there is no trace of love. It received its Dutch premiere on Monday 25 June at Dutch National Opera, as part of the Holland Festival where Benjamin is composer in focus.
Lessons in Love and Violence, loosely based on a play about Edward II by Christopher Marlowe, is a dark and chilly tragedy that knows only losers. The king forces Gaveston to swim under ice until his lungs burst and holds his hand above a flame. Conversely, Gaveston’s ‘love’ is rooted in his own self-interest. He leads a reign of terror against the people, causes Mortimer to be expelled and confiscates his property. Queen Isabel, for her part, sets up house with Mortimer, with whom she raises her son to become a puppet king. Together they pronounce the death sentence on both Gaveston and her husband. But in the end Isabel, too, is left behind empty-handed.
Love is never selfless
The cynical notion that love is never selfless runs like a thread through the performance. The pursuit of power dominates everything. – Beautifully symbolized by the illuminated royal crown that is continuously ridden on and off the stage on a trolley. As soon as the ‘young king’ is crowned, he decides to kill Mortimer and stab out his eyes. The son has learned his ‘lessons in love and violence’.
Crimp may be Benjamin’s dreamed librettist, that does not necessarily apply to the opera itself. Although his texts are poignant and musical, they are too abstract to give the characters psychological depth. Therefore you can’t identify with even one single character, they’re all equally cold and heartless. Only the little daughter – simply ‘the girl’ – manages to evoke some compassion. As a silent bystander she makes her childlike attachment to and concern for her father emotionally palpable – a brilliant performance of Ocean Barrington-Crook.
Benjamin juxtaposes the ghastly atmosphere on stage with sultry music full of subtle and luscious timbres. The subcutaneous tension is present from start to finish in terrifyingly dissonant sound fields, cleverly packaged in sweet-voiced harmonies. – However paradoxical this may sound. This softly smouldering fire is pierced by loudly flaring eruptions of brass and percussion. Benjamin closely follows the text and his music sometimes reminds us of the expressionism of Berg or Schoenberg. The lyrical, parlando vocal lines recall the operas of Benjamin Britten.
Wagner peeps through when the orchestra tells a different story than the singers. For instance in the brilliant duet between Isabel and the king in the fourth scene. While he bitterly shouts out his anger at the murder of Gaveston, we hear deceptively sweet and hushed strings. Beautiful are the muted hammering on a cimbalom and stately harmonies in the sixth scene. The king is dead, but Gaveston, as ‘the stranger’, lovingly embraces him one last time. Earlier, a lonely hand drum had already announced their death.
It is quite obvious that Benjamin wrote his parts with these specific singers in mind. The baritone Stéphane Degout is an imposing king, Gyula Orendt convinces as Gaveston despite a small rasp in his voice. Barbara Hannigan enchants us as Isabel, her tone is full and creamy even in the highest registers. The clear and powerful tenor of Peter Hoare perfectly suits his role a Mortimer. Samuel Boden is a wonderfully pure boy/young king.
The staging of Katie Mitchel is effective. The seven scenes take place in a bedroom, viewed from different perspectives. Fish swim in a colourful illuminated aquarium at first, but after a few scenes this only contains a barren pile of stones. Windows are missing: in this bleak universe death prevails. The stifling atmosphere is emphasized by the fact that the characters often move in slow motion.
George Benjamin himself leads the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, which once again shows its class with a subtle interpretation of his smouldering music. Unfortunately, however, it can’t bring to life the icy tragedy.
The National Opera/Holland Festival
George Benjamin/Martin Crimp: Lessons in Love and Vio9lence
The opera runs until July 5th.
Info and tickets here.