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

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.

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 – StÈphane 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 SzabÛ; Witness 3/Madman – Andri Bjˆrn RÛbertsson. 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.

image_description=Scene from Lessons in Love and Violence [Photo © Hans van den Bogaard]
product_title=Lessons in Love and Violence at the Holland Festival: Impressive in parts
product_by=A review by Jenny Camilleri
product_id=Above: Scene from Lessons in Love and Violence [Photo © Hans van den Bogaard]