Fragments of Time: Lessons in Love and Violence at the Royal Opera House

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

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House /  George Benjamin.
Stage director – Katie Mitchell.

Royal Opera House, London, England.  Thursday, May 11th, 2018.

Following on from their highly successful Written on Skin, George Benjamin and Martin Crimp’s latest collaboration, Lessons in Love and Violence, is a setting of the story of Edward II, his lover Gaveston, the latter’s eventual murder and the King’s eventual dethroning and murder.  Based in part on the Marlowe play that also inspired Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini’s Edward II, premiered in Berlin last year, Lessons takes a somewhat different angle to Scartazzini’s.

Photo: © ROH / Stephen Cummiskey

What we essentially get here is a series of fragments – both dramatic and musical.  Split into seven scenes, connected by interludes, Crimp and Benjamin pull the narrative down to its bare bones.  What we see is a chamber drama – the four principal characters: the King, his wife Isabel, his lover Gaveston and his Secretary Mortimer – and the relationships between them.  There is no chorus, rather a silent troupe of actors watch on, taking notes.  Secondary characters involve singers doubling roles and, of the royal couple’s children only the boy sings, the daughter watches, participates in the drama.  In this uneasy ménage à trois, the King advocates for love, while Mortimer advocates for war.  This sets up a dichotomy between the pursuit of love and the pursuit of violence in the elite, while the people suffer.  Interesting how the people blamed Gaveston for their suffering and yet Isabel flaunted her wealth by dissolving a pearl in vinegar in front of them and forcing one of them to drink the mixture.

Photo: © ROH / Stephen Cummiskey

So much in Lessons is left to the imagination of the spectator.  In fact, the King is never mentioned by name making us even wonder if the character we’re watching is even Edward II.  The trajectory of the narrative is clear, but the fragmented nature of how it’s set up means that the joining of the dots is left to the person watching, bringing her or his own experiences, whether it’s being familiar with the Marlowe or their own cultural baggage.  I also found that the trajectory of the narrative was reflected in Benjamin’s vocal lines.  So often, it felt that the shape of the lines was predictable – with the surtitles giving an advance notice of what was going to be sung next, after a few moments, I felt that I had a sense of how the lines were going to evolve.  On first hearing, I’m not convinced that this is a strength in the work.  Over the course of the ninety minutes, one longed for some variation, something that would surprise in the word setting.  Others might find the naturalism of the word setting much more rewarding.  The positive is that the lines are eminently singable.  Yes, there are places in which Benjamin takes his singers to the extremities of their ranges – one of the witnesses’ lines is stratospheric, Isabel also has a few awkward passaggio-crossing moments at one point – but on the whole, the awkward register-negotiating writing beloved of many contemporary composers is missing.  There is much beautiful melismatic writing for the characters.  Setting the roles of the King and Gaveston for two baritones meant that their fraternal vocal compasses genuinely reflected their closeness and was ravishing to listen to.

Photo: © ROH / Stephen Cummiskey

As expected, the orchestral writing is highly assured.  This is a work that lives in its own time and space.  Without having seen the score, it struck me that tempi never really went swifter than andante.  The fragmented nature of the work was also reflected in the orchestra.  It felt that rather than conventional musical ideas being developed, a linear musical argument finding a conclusion, we instead had a score that was intimately related to what was happening in the text.  The overall impression was quite static, although there were some interesting rhythmic features that occasionally appeared in the percussion towards the end.  Benjamin uses the orchestra with extreme delicacy.  It may be a large band but the moments in which the entire orchestra was used were few and generally reserved for the interludes.  The sound world involved bluesy horns, shimmering strings and peppery cimbalom adding a strangeness to the texture.  Again, with much left to the imagination, when the King announced he was hearing drumming we heard a fragment of that – not drumming but something else instead.  The house orchestra was on their best behaviour for the composer and played with security.

Photo: © ROH / Stephen Cummiskey

Katie Mitchell’s staging was fluent and clearly linked to the text and its musical illustration.  During each interlude the curtain would descend and subsequently rise to reveal the set (Vicki Mortimer) from another angle.  Personenregie was effective – with a cast of great singer actors such as this, it would be hard for it not to be.  In common with her Lucia at this theatre, the set only took up half the height of the proscenium and I did wonder if that would have been a disadvantage for viewers higher up in the house.  Unlike the Lucia, Mitchell did ensure that most of the key action did take place in the centre of the stage and in doing so took account of the poor sightlines from much of the house.

Photo: © ROH / Stephen Cummiskey

One could not wish for better advocates for this work than the cast we saw tonight.  Diction was clear throughout the cast, clearly as a result of the gratefulness of the vocal writing.  Stéphane Degout brought his handsome, rich and warm baritone to the role of the King.  There was something quite virile and elemental about his singing in the way he commanded the stage.  The way that the voice blended quite magically with Gyula Orendt’s Gaveston was ravishing – particularly as the voices intertwined high in their registers.  Orendt’s silky, handsome sound contrasted and complemented Degout’s nicely.  Both with staggering ease throughout the range and both able to twist attractive, mellifluous lines.  Barbara Hannigan brought her supreme musicality to Isabel.  The very bottom of the voice is somewhat dry but Hannigan crossed the registers with masterful ease.  The voice bloomed gloriously at the top, the peaches and cream tone enhanced with even emissions.  Peter Hoare was a nicely insinuating Mortimer, the oaky tone and keen diction, always sung off the text, bringing his character to life.  Samuel Boden sang the Boy and Young King with a bright, focused tenor, reflecting his character’s youthfulness with a use of a full and rounded falsetto at times.  The remainder of the cast was very fine, in particular Jennifer France’s stratospheric, silvery-voiced soprano in her multiple roles.

Photo: © ROH / Stephen Cummiskey

This was a fascinating evening in the theatre, one that didn’t give easy answers but also one that provided a ravishing sound world that existed in its own space and time.  Crimp and Benajmin have given us a most timely story about the elite arguing amongst itself while the country suffers.  Yet it’s also more than that, it’s also a story of how history can reproduce itself, of how lessons can be learned and unlearned but also of ultimately the power of violence.  In a way, it’s a disturbing ending – the impact of the lesson of violence seemingly stronger than that of love.  Or is that love can only be redeemed through a violent act?  This was a fragmentary work that left much to the audience’s imagination.  It was superbly prepared and performed by an outstanding cast in a fluent production that felt intimately married to the work itself.  Yes, on first hearing, I was left with doubts about the pace of the work and the predictability of the vocal lines but this is certainly a work that will benefit from further exploration.  With performances already planned in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Hamburg, Lyon, Chicago and Madrid, there will be multiple opportunities to do so.

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