Lessons in Love and Violence at Covent Garden7:33, 8th June 2018
The libretto is full of meaty conflicts. The performances are excellent. The orchestral sound-world is full of ear-tingling surprises. So why does George Benjamin’s new opera Lessons in Love and Violence, which received its world premiere at Covent Garden last month, not deliver the red-blooded thrills it should?
Loosely based on the story of King Edward II of England (and a fraction less loosely on Marlowe’s 1593 play), Martin Crimp’s libretto presents us with an excellent opening scene: we see the King declare his love for Piers Gaveston, while his chief advisor Mortimer fulminates against the destabilising nature of affection and desire. ‘It’s nothing to do with loving a man, it’s love full stop that is poison,’ says the anti-amatory Mortimer. Queen Isabel, who is sort-of-tolerant of the relationship, and the King’s two children then watch as Mortimer is banished for his cold-blooded and authoritarian stance. All of them then get sucked into a vortex of counterplotting and betrayal as the vengeful Mortimer seeks to restore both his own status and the political order of the state.
Crimp (who also wrote the libretti for Benjamin’s two previous operas Into the Little Hill, and Written on Skin) provides intriguing opportunities for musical display, including a witty opera-within-an-opera scene, and a meeting between the King and Gaveston’s ghost.
Benjamin’s music doesn’t rise to the challenge set by the words. The characters are differentiated by clever orchestral accompaniments – nervous staccato woodwind pinpricks for one, low brass for another, the haunting sound of a cimbalom elsewhere – but not by their samey vocal writing; and even though they may inform us they are angry they never really sound it. One waits in vain for a hell-for-leather duet, or big-build ensemble of the kind which Brett Dean so memorably provided in last year’s slam-dunk success Hamlet. Everything here is cool, ironized and forensic, and there’s no musical hint of the down-and-dirty craziness which the story suggests.
That’s no fault of the performers who are uniformly excellent. Baritone Stéphane Degout (Edward) sings with a warm creamy sound, and is a powerful and authoritative figure on stage. He’s matched by Gyula Orendt as a violent, simmering Gaveston and a glamorous Barbara Hannigan as the turncoat Queen Isabel. Peter Hoare finds a desperate humanity in the rather brutal figure of Mortimer too and young tenor Samuel Boden makes a mark as the future Edward III. Katie Mitchell creates a stylized modern-dress production which is exemplary in its narrative clarity and attention to details of characterisation. So, plenty of plus points – but not enough to get the pulse racing.