Benjamin Lessons in Love and Violence
Stéphane Degout, Barbara Hannigan, Peter Hoare, Samuel Boden, Gyula Orendt; Royal Opera House Orchestra/George Benjamin; dir. Katie Mitchell
Opus Arte DVD: OA1221D; Blu-ray: OABD7199D 88 mins
Playwright-librettist Martin Crimp and stage director Katie Mitchell seem content to revisit old formulae with – as shown here in George Benjamin’s latest opera – diminishing returns. Once again they have turned to a medieval story (albeit one disguised in Vicki Mortimer’s modern-dress setting) and clothed it in wrong-note Debussy, all of which does nothing to advance the cause of contemporary opera. Of course, it is impossible for new opera always to break new ground, yet the safety-first aspect of Lessons in Love and Violence is dispiriting. It’s less successful than Written on Skin, which itself was much less original than the first Benjamin-Crimp opera, Into the Little Hill.
Which is not to say that Benjamin’s score isn’t remarkable. His orchestral imagination is prodigious, and both as composer and conductor he conjures up memorable soundscapes full of jittery tension – just what’s required in this story based on the fatally doomed relationship of Edward II and Piers Gaveston. Indeed, the whole production is exemplary, if po-faced and self-regarding. The entire cast seems convinced it is creating something deeply meaningful, and there is no doubting the commitment of Stéphane Degout’s commanding (then crushed) King, of Gyula Orendt’s smoothly sung Gaveston or of Barbara Hannigan’s hyper-present Isabel. Peter Hoare’s scheming Mortimer is the most compelling of all. Strikingly filmed – many shots are taken from above – this recording captures the premiere of a production that is due to be widely seen, but the work really needs to be set free from its creators.