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Reviews

<em>Lessons in Love and Violence</em>, Royal Opera House, London
12 May 2018

Lessons in Love and Violence: powerful musical utterances but perplexing dramatic motivations

‘What a thrill -/ My thumb instead of an onion. The top quite gone/ Except for a sort of hinge/ Of skin,/ A flap like a hat,/ Dead white. Then that red plush.’ Those who imagined that Sylvia Plath (‘Cut’, 1962) had achieved unassailable aesthetic peaks in fusing pain - mental and physical - with beauty, might think again after seeing and hearing this, the third, collaboration between composer George Benjamin and dramatist/librettist Martin Crimp: Lessons in Love and Violence.

Lessons in Love and Violence, Royal Opera House, London

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: The murder of the ‘Madman’, production image

Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey

 

It is shockingly exquisite. Following their archaeological investigations into the medieval past in Written on Skin, the pair have again delved into the historical archives: specifically, the chronicle of King Edward II’s obsessive and self-destructive infatuation with his French paramour, Piers Gaveston. Director Katie Mitchell meticulously and with microscopic focus show us how such love destroys the happiness of Edward’s wife, Isabella, and of his court and country. The resultant murders of the King’s lover, the King himself and, subsequently, his Machiavellian assassin, unroll with dreadful inevitability, before the ascension of his son restores ‘order’ to a riven realm.

Benjamin’s orchestral writing is characteristically but still astonishingly refined and precise. Bass-centred and hollow sonorities dominate: the echoing eeriness of resonant woodwind, suffused with pain and panic; the disconcerting strangeness of percussive twangs and bangs; harp-drumming that makes one’s nerves jangle. A prevailing low register characterises the vocal writing too, aiding textual clarity: the declamatory lines are masterfully delivered by the cast (there is not really anything that might be termed ‘melody’), and when I say I could hear every word, I mean it. Benjamin has been ably served by Crimp, who knows when to provide elongated vowels or a telling rhetorical-poetical utterance that can be musically memorialised. But, Benjamin must take double credit for such textual clarity, as discerning and judicious an orchestrator - like a painter he has surveyed a vast palette and selected just a few eclectic hues to unimaginably emotive effect - as he is orchestral ‘front-man’ with a baton in his hand.

Peter Hoare as Mortimer.jpgPeter Hoare (Mortimer). Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

Both human morals and musical hues sink low, which only serves to emphasise the glistening lustre of Barbara Hannigan who, as Isabel, soars with stunning sumptuousness and sheen. Similarly, the high-lying lucidness of tenor Samuel Boden Boy/Young King evinces a penetrative purity and vision which is woefully absent elsewhere in this poisonous court. Stéphane Degout’s ‘King’ (no identifier is given) is paradoxically eloquent and petulant, his faith in his ‘divine right’ imbuing his proclamations of centrality and invincibility with seemingly impenetrable power. Gyula Orendt sings with honeyed slickness as the quasi-abusive Gaveston. And, as Mortimer, Peter Hoare almost out-sings all, willing us to side with his ‘rational’ vision of patriotic equilibrium.

Barbara Hannigan as Isabel Stephen Cummiskey.jpgBarbara Hannigan (Isabel). Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

As the opera’s seven scenes unfold, Edward’s children - Boden’s ‘Boy’ and Ocean Barrington-Cook’s mute but expressive ‘Girl’ - watch all, ring-side spectators at a rivetingly horrific spectacle. And, we too are voyeurs, as Vicki Mortimer’s pristine, princely but clinical King’s Bedroom swivels to afford us a view from each of its four sides. Though Benjamin and Crimp eschew the third-person fussiness of Written on Skin - where characters announce their own words, ‘The Boy says …’ - Mitchell’s use of perspective creates a certain distancing, as from our bird’s-eye eyrie we watch this rancid world rotate, prey to our appetite for dissection and scrutiny.

Lessons in Love and Violence production image.jpgPhoto credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

There is nothing ‘medieval’ about the set, and at a time when the whims and egos of those in power plunge us ever deeper towards apocalyptic abyss, that seems fitting. One wall of the King’s bedchamber sports an imitation of an artwork by Francis Bacon, the artist who put pain into painting with works that foregrounded, savagery, agony and mortality. On another, there is a fish-tank, initially pulsing with aquamarine and emerald currents but drained of colour, to barren ash, following the murder of Gaveston. A show-case of gilt busts, statuary and artefacts attests to the luxurious licence that wealth brings, and which Isabella rubs in the faces of the populace in the second scene of the opera when she responds to their pleas of poverty and suffering by, à la Cleopatra, dissolving a pearl in wine. Nothing shines brighter than the crown, golden and glowing in its glass presentation box.

With such glory on show, why did I leave the Royal Opera House feeling a little dissatisfied? Movement director Joseph Alford frequently uses a quasi-digital slow motion which is entrancing, as it suspends time, but also diverting, for this distancing device seems to me to encapsulate one of the opera’s ‘problems’: there is no dramatic conflict, by which I mean there are no developing characters, evolving relationships, changing allegiances, and knotty issues to be explored, unravelled and resolved. The greatest ‘drama’ occurs in the instrumental interludes between scenes where the music introduces conversing voices in ways absent in the sung scenes. Essentially, we are introduced to a nasty bunch of characters at the start of the opera, and their nasty end is a forgone conclusion. It is beautifully depicted, in music and visually, but it is not ‘dramatic’.

Crimp describes the opera as a ‘slightly oblique examination’ of Christopher Marlowe’s play, Edward II, but there are echoes of the latter which, when displaced from their original context, lose their rationale. Crimp explains that what is really striking in Marlowe is that ‘at the heart of it there is a man who dies for and of love’, and that this inspired the first line of his libretto: ‘It’s nothing to do with loving a man, it’s love full stop that is poison.’ To this end, he borrows one of Marlowe’s most potent lines: when Marlowe’s Mortimer Junior asks, ‘Why should you love him whom the world hates so?’, Edward replies, ‘Because he loves me more than all the world.’ At this moment, the King’s honesty and guilelessness compel us to side with him. But, such empathy is significant because in the play our sympathies fluctuate. And, at this point Edward expresses, so simply, our human need for affection. Elsewhere he is deluded, irresponsible and destructive, but Edward’s final soliloquy when, with weary despair, he futilely yearns for a moment of comfort among his friends and poetically anguishes over the torments he has endured, pushes aside the empty bombast that has preceded; here, at last, Edward possesses an eloquence worthy of his divine right to rule. In the opera, there is no comparable variety or dialectic in the King’s musical utterances, and so the expression of love loses impact and dramatic relevance.

Stéphane Degout as King and Gyula Orendt as Gaveston.jpgStéphane Degout (King) and Gyula Orendt (Gaveston). Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

In the opera, Mortimer’s hateful vindictiveness towards Gaveston also lacks the sort of context that might introduce elements of ambiguity and play with our sympathies. In the play, the barons dismiss Galveston as a ‘night-grown mushrump’, but the Frenchman has a courtly sophistication which rebuts their coarseness; but in the opera Galveston is a quasi-abusive manipulator, and it is appropriate that Orendt returns as the controlling and heartless ‘Stranger’ - perhaps an echo of Marlowe’s Lightborn, an amoral mechanical murder-machine.

Marlowe was not interested in the ‘common man’; he ignored Holinshed’s account of Scottish plundering and a populace suffering from famine - possible motivation for the barons’ commitment to defence of the realm through dethronement or regicide - and focused on their personal, snobbish pique at Gaveston’s ‘common’ origins (not historically accurate). Such petty superiority makes us side with Edward for all his childish boorishness. But, in the opera there are no barons excepting Mortimer, and the populace is a shadow of grey suits bearing clip-boards. Where are the conflicting arguments that should test our sympathies?

The characterisation of Mortimer is equally problematic. Crimp retains Gaveston’s malicious inferences about Mortimer’s intent - he is a ‘snout’ poking up Isabel’s skirt - but Mortimer has to bear the weight of the court’s and country’s ‘reason’. Yet, rather than sliding from coherent patriotic arguments into impetuous self-aggrandisement, this Mortimer is a Machiavellian manipulator from the start. That said, while the execution of Mortimer at the end of Marlowe’s play, following so swiftly upon the murderer’s heroic avowals of unassailability and immunity, is dramatically necessary and satisfying, Crimp’s imagined scenario for Mortimer’s hubristic undoing is perhaps an even more pointed and painful outcome of his self-deluded profession of invulnerability: ‘ Maior sum quam cui possit fortuna nocere.’ (I am so great that Fortune cannot harm me)

Ocean Barrington-Cook as Girl and Peter Hoare as Mortimer .jpg Ocean Barrington-Cook (Girl) and Peter Hoare (Mortimer). Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

Crimp’s Isabel, too, seems lacking in psychological and emotional ‘layers’. When rejected by the King she dotes upon Mortimer, and we have a strong sense of his power over her, but the dramatic potency of the re-direction of the Queen’s affections relies on us believing in the veracity of her passion for husband in the first place, and the strength of her self-delusion that she can regain her husband’s love. Crimp and Benjamin show us Isabel’s delight in luxury, but not the strength of her marital love. In contrast, Marlowe’s Isabella rejects the jewels with which Edward bestows her as a reward for convincing the barons to agree to Gaveston’s return from exile, and pleads instead for ‘a kiss’ to revive ‘poor Isabel’.

The opera’s seven scenes do not unfold with the logic of a lesson-plan; rather they are power-point images which illustrate isolated stages on the protagonists’ journey to pain and purgatory. There is no interrogation of what love ‘is’, why human beings tolerate and execute violence, or how love and violence come to be so inextricably bound. At the close, the Boy/Young King has learned only the art of imitation: how to inflict cruelty, and to argue that the execution of inhuman brutality is in the name of justice and greater good. Has he learned self-awareness? How to love?

Lessons in Love and Violence is musically captivating, but dramatically perplexing.

Claire Seymour

George Benjamin: Lessons in Love and Violence
Libretto: Martin Crimp

A co-production with Dutch National Opera, Hamburg State Opera, Opéra de Lyon, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, and Teatro Real, Madrid.

King - Stéphane Degout, Isabel - Barbara Hannigan, Gaveston/Stranger - Gyula Orendt, Mortimer - Peter Hoare, Boy/Young King - Samuel Boden, Girl - Ocean Barrington-Cook, Witness 1/Singer 1/Woman 1 - Jennifer France, Witness 2/Singer 2/Woman 2 - Krisztina Szabó, Witness 3/Madman - Andri Björn Róbertsson; Director - Katie Mitchell, Conductor - George Benjamin, Designer - Vicki Mortimer, Lighting designer - James Farncombe, Movement director - Joseph Alford, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; 10th May 2018.

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