Lessons in Love and Violence

Barbara Hannigan as Isabel, Stéphane Degout as King and Gyula Orendt as Gaveston (C) ROH. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey

George Benjamin
LESSONS IN LOVE AND VIOLENCE
Royal Opera House, until May 26

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, May 18

A descending three-note motif, marked out slowly on harps and cimbalom, is followed by a languid, gently syncopated line on the tombak. The instruments all have ancient roots – the cimbalom is a dulcimer variant originally brought to Hungary from the Far East, while the tombak, a kind of goblet drum, is the main percussion instrument of Persian music – and the resulting timbre evokes historical and cultural distance for a British audience. But George Benjamin, in his new opera, Lessons in Love and Violence, composed to a libretto by his now regular collaborator Martin Crimp, is interested in the combination of instruments less because it conjures up a particular place or period than because it acts on the perception of time in the present. The tombak has clear but rounded articulations, at both treble and bass pitch, and the motif’s gentle timbre and eased-up rhythm quickly subvert the angular contours of the preceding passage. The cimbalom, on the other hand, creates a rich cloud of overtones. These are carried over into the violins, amplified and intensified, and the implicit harmonies opened out. Auditorium and stage alike are drawn into the music’s altered temporality.

The motif arises most notably in the opera when the King, Edward II, asks for his palm to be read, first by his lover Piers Gaveston and second by his executioner (an apparition of Gaveston), and the music does create a kind of mystical atmosphere. At the same time, however, the device is a more exaggerated version of a technique used throughout the score to set off musical systems against each other. Changes in underlying metre are accompanied by shifts of harmonic spectrum and timbre so that there is a sense of entire musical worlds confronting each other; that is, of ways of seeing and hearing the world which, in their greater or lesser degrees of compatibility with each other, provide the drama unfolding on stage with its framework. At some points the shifts and contrasts, which occur as much between different characters as they do within the same character at different times, are incredibly subtle. At others – as in the palm-reading motif, where the languorous atmosphere of the cimbalom and tombak take over from the more anguished and angular music which precedes it – the contrast is more extreme, and thus more dramatic.

To those familiar with Benjamin’s music, little of this will be surprising. The cimbalom plays a prominent role, for similar reasons, in his first opera, the chamber “lyric tale”, Into the Little Hill, while Written on Skin (2012) makes use of a glass harmonica to parallel purpose. More significantly, Benjamin’s extraordinary capacity to create a kind of counterpoint between systems of harmony and colour has meanwhile been a prominent feature of his work since the orchestral piece Sudden Time (1993). When he was asked, during a promotional event at the Royal Opera, how he conveyed themes like love and violence in his music – a fair question, given the work’s title – the composer looked quite astonished. “I write notes”, he eventually stammered out, rather like a polite gallerist whose shop had been mistaken for a framers. As a composer his job is to write music.

It is this quality, above all, that makes Benjamin a somewhat singular figure in today’s musical world. Though his music sounds entirely modern, his conception of his art is supremely old-fashioned, in that his interest lies exclusively in creating musical beauty. Any effects, whether colouristic or dramatic, are always understood through the prism of beauty, and his chief development as an artist in the last decade or so has been to realize, rather as Mozart did, just how powerful an engine of drama this prism can be.

His new opera is different from the previous two primarily in that the composer’s confidence in the dramatic potential of his musical techniques has increased. Though the subject matter is just as bloody as Written on Skin – a fact made boldly plain by the work’s title – the surface of the music is much less volatile. Of his recent works, it is reminiscent most of the 2011 Piano Duo, in which the opposition between piano and orchestra is dissolved so that the orchestral timbre flows continuously from the piano’s soundboard. As in the previous operas, there are no formal arias as such, but here the sense is all the stronger that the melodic line could erupt at any moment, producing aria-like refractions of the emotional drama. The music begins in the thick of the action, with a confrontation taken at fast pace, suspended briefly as the voices settle momentarily on resonant words. The first three are “bore”, “blood” and “king”.

The first example is particularly telling. Crimp’s libretto adapts the story of Edward II and Piers Gaveston and, in keeping with the previous two libretti, the setting is what you might call contemporary-mythic in its use of contemporary psychological concepts and language to de-historicize the action. There is no effort to adapt Marlowe’s play directly (Crimp has mainly drawn on older historical sources), but the opera does carry over one central feature from the play, which is Marlowe’s contrast between the aesthetic intensity of Edward and Gaveston’s language and the mundane speech of the other characters. For while there is nothing “mundane” about the words or music of any of Crimp and Benjamin’s characters (Crimp’s language is as ever one of pared-down and often rather aggressive precision), the contrast is nonetheless strongly borne out in the conflicts between the expansive musical world of Edward and Gaveston and the curtailed structures of Mortimer (for whom the sticking point, unlike in Marlowe, is less homosexuality than the king’s romantic inclinations per se: “It’s love full stop that is poison”). It is also manifest in the way in which the other principal characters – the Queen, Isabel and the young prince Edward – are caught in the flow between them. In Gaveston and the King’s aestheticized world, to be a bore is the cardinal sin because it is to conflate the existence of things with their market value. When Gaveston greets Mortimer, returned from exile and intent on Gaveston’s apprehension and execution, he asks Mortimer if he has come to tell him “the price of butter – the price of bread”. The real world, and the heat which accompanies exchanges of goods, of power, press against him as the angular lines of Mortimer’s musical dimension close round his own, choking out its life.

One of the most interesting features of the opera is thus that it dramatizes, with an alarmingly cool-headed precision, the very idea of intrinsic value. For while Mortimer’s bureaucratic preoccupations are shown with their customarily observed brutal extensions intact (“There is an art to killing, but no joy”), so too is the aestheticism of Gaveston and Edward shown as locked into a spiral in which excess and violence is the only way to find renewal. As the increasingly grim reality (Edward’s failed wars against Scotland) gnaws against their love, their lives, no less than their deaths, gain an inescapably sadomasochistic character.

But it is the Queen, Isabel, who expresses the drama’s heart most effectively. Pressed for charity by the poor and dispossessed – witnesses of Edward’s disregard for governance – she takes a pearl from her necklace, which “would buy each one of you a house with fourteen rooms”, and explains that “the beauty of the pearl / is not what the pearl can buy. / The beauty of the pearl – like the slow radiance of music – / is what the pearl is”. “Look”, she invites them, before dissolving the pearl in a glass of vinegar. “Fourteen rooms dissolve . . . . The dull dreams of the average dreamer . . . in the acid of . . . pure and inexchangeable value.” As a protest against the instrumentalization of aesthetic value, the scene has all the matter-of-factness of the composer’s answer, “I write notes”. As if to underline it, the music glitters, pregnant with its own beauty.

If the performances are polished in a brand new work, it’s a generally a good sign of its quality. Here, everyone shines brightly. Barbara Hannigan’s Isabel captures perfectly the queen’s cocktail of insouciance and worn-out care in every gesture of her body and voice. Stéphane Degout makes a tremendously sympathetic King and Gyula Orendt, another wondrously smooth baritone (the voices should blend together seamlessly) is careful not to overdo Gaveston’s capricious side. As a result, the central love affair has an overwhelming dramatic presence. Peter Hoare’s versatile tenor conveys superbly Mortimer’s contrasting passion for power, and the young tenor Samuel Boden gives a compelling performance as the Boy, Edward’s son. Benjamin himself conducts what is, for all its restraint, an exceedingly challenging score. Vicki Mortimer’s stylish set and costumes provide a seamless reflection of the music and libretto’s clean modern lines so that even details such as an ornate crown, wheeled around in its glass case, seem natural. Only the lighting feels in need of adjustment. Katie Mitchell directs in a manner precisely parallel to the score, using familiar techniques – such as slow-motion sequences – to echo the music’s temporal shifts, but focusing on helping the singers maintain positions and attitudes where all trace of artifice can be ironed out of the performances. Further evidence of her success comes from the fact that, amid profoundly compelling musical characterizations, one of the most engaging performances is that of Edward’s daughter, a silent acting role played by Ocean Barrington-Cook whose role Mitchell amplifies in order to reflect Edward’s lonely turmoil. The curtain closes just as the cycle of revenge is getting started. When it comes to lessons in love and violence, Edward’s daughter has clearly been the star pupil.

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