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Performances

Scene from Lessons in Love and Violence [Photo © Hans van den Bogaard]
27 Jun 2018

Lessons in Love and Violence at the Holland Festival: Impressive in parts

Six years ago composer George Benjamin and playwright Martin Crimp gave the world Written on Skin. It caused a sensation at its unveiling at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Hot on the heels of its world premiere at the Royal Opera House in London, the composer is now conducting their second full-length opera, Lessons in Love and Violence, at the Holland Festival, where he is this year’s Composer in Focus.

Lessons in Love and Violence at the Holland Festival: Impressive in parts

A review by Jenny Camilleri

Above: Scene from Lessons in Love and Violence [Photo © Hans van den Bogaard]

 

Dutch National Opera, one of the work’s seven (!) co-producers, is hosting the production. Benjamin’s new opus impresses with its orchestral texture and the production boasts deluxe visuals and top-drawer performances. But Crimp’s dialogue renders the characters elusive and the score loses theatrical momentum after a strong first half.

Lessons is loosely based on Christopher Marlowe’s historical play Edward II. The plot’s motor is the King’s politically disastrous relationship with his despised favorite, Piers Gaveston. Crimp distills the drama around four main characters: the King, Queen Isabel, Gaveston and the rebel lord Mortimer. After masterminding Gaveston’s death, Mortimer teams up with Isabel to depose the King in favor of his son. The boy king then brutally repays Mortimer for his lessons in ruthless statesmanship. Split into seven scenes, the plot explores the conflict between personal relationships and the responsibilities of power. The libretto specifies different locations, but director Katie Mitchell stages every scene in the King’s bedroom. The handsome set, decorated with Francis Bacon paintings, a reference to Edward’s patronage of the arts, and a tropical aquarium, shifts to reveal different angles of the room. It looks wonderful, but anchoring the plot in a single space has an alienating effect. Mitchell creates further emotional distance between the stage and the public by casting the royal children as constant observers, although this could be Crimp’s directive. Sleek-voiced tenor Samuel Boden as the Boy and Ocean Barrington-Cook, eloquent in the silent role of the Girl, are privy to the most intimate and lacerating interactions between their parents, Gaveston and Mortimer. Seeing them observe and absorb their dubious lessons turns us spectators into clinical observers.

Crimp’s conversations also seem designed to discourage emotional involvement. His pairs of questions and answers sound like wisps of Socratic dialogue. Feelings are hinted at, personalities remain undeveloped. Stéphane Degout’s baritone flowed like dark honey but his words never conveyed who the King really is. He is in thrall to his controlling lover Gaveston, but why? That Isabel emerges as the most clearly delineated character is certainly thanks to Barbara Hannigan’s consummate artistry, but also because her high-lying music, tailored to Hannigan’s strengths, has a distinctive imprint. One of the opera’s best scenes is the nocturnal duet between Isabel and the King. Gaveston has been killed and their relationship has reached its breaking point. Hannigan’s penetrant soprano twisting up into florid hysteria above Degout’s mellifluous misery presented a striking contrast to the prevalent bas-relief of singing imitating speech rhythms. Benjamin gives most of the big, dissonant climaxes to the orchestra. Several of these come, predictably after a while, in the interludes that facilitate scene changes. A most welcome exception was the tautly constructed vocal ensemble as Mortimer has Gaveston seized at a private entertainment. The mix of high and low voices within the orchestral cyclone was the dramatic high point of the performance.

Another big ensemble would have made the suffering of the population more palpable. Instead, two soloists emerge from a crowd of actors and plead with Isabel, who responds by provokingly dissolving a pearl in vinegar, à la Cleopatra. However fierce their interventions, soprano Jennifer France and mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó could not, on their own, convey nation-wide unrest. Since the whole plot hinges on the political consequences of what goes on in the King’s bed, those bedroom walls cried to be knocked down by a huge chorus. While the singing only sporadically reflects the savagery of the violence, and the little love in evidence, the writing for the orchestra is highly dramatic. Benjamin stirs up an atmosphere doused in cold sweat, with threatening strings and rumbling brass. Low instruments predominate, resonating in a deep, multilevel darkness, with the occasional flute darting about in short neurotic figures. Only the composer can say if the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic produced the sounds he had in mind, but they seemed concentrated and responsive to his conducting. The orchestral fabric sounded rich and vibrant throughout, from the bare eeriness of the cimbalom and harp to the density of the looming string figures.

Since the best scenes occur in the first half, the rest suffers by comparison. In spite of accomplished performances, especially from the excellent Peter Hoare as Mortimer, the appearance of an insane pretender to the throne made little impact. The Madman, bass-baritone Andri Björn Róbertsson, and everyone else, seemed to be repeating the same vocal patterns used earlier. Two short monologues slow things down without adding any insight. First Gaveston, sung by Gyula Orendt, appears to the King looking like himself, although he is, in fact, Death, and summarizes the events we’ve just witnessed. Orendt’s slim baritone did not project enough foreboding to justify this exposition. In the final scene the Boy does the same thing all over again. After several big orchestral crescendos, the ending is a musical anticlimax – a surprising musical device, but also something of a dramatic comedown. There are many fine elements in Lessons in Love and Violence. It feels unfair that the whole does not equal the best of its parts.

Jenny Camilleri


George Benjamin: Lessons in Love and Violence

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; Set and Costume Designer - Vicki Mortimer; Lighting Designer - James Farncombe; Movement - Joseph Alford. Conductor - George Benjamin. Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. Seen at Dutch National Opera & Ballet, Amsterdam, on Monday, 25th of June, 2018.

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