LONDON — George Benjamin and Martin Crimp have done it again.
Six years after their previous operatic collaboration, the masterly “Written on Skin,” Mr. Benjamin and Mr. Crimp have again dared to challenge audiences by remaining true to their uncompromising visions. In “Lessons in Love and Violence,” which opened here on Thursday at the Royal Opera House, the music, written and compellingly conducted by Mr. Benjamin, is unapologetically modernist, while the libretto, by Mr. Crimp, is often cryptic. Without pandering, they’ve made another significant contribution to the art form.
As with the medieval “Written on Skin,” “Lessons in Love and Violence” — which will stream on medici.tv starting May 26 and travel to at least six opera companies in the coming seasons — looks to the past for contemporary resonances. Mining the historical relationship between King Edward II of England (1284-1327) and his courtier Piers Gaveston, the 90-minute opera doesn’t seize on the story for a polemic on behalf of gay love. Aided by Katie Mitchell’s modern-dress production, Mr. Crimp and Mr. Benjamin have made something more ambiguous and timeless: a tale of a leader’s catastrophic conflation of his personal desires with the identity of his suffering country.
Recalling the gnomic character names in “Written on Skin,” Edward is referred to only as the King (the charismatic baritone Stéphane Degout); his heir is the Boy (the tenor Samuel Boden); Edward’s wife, Queen Isabella, is Isabel (the expressive and riveting soprano Barbara Hannigan). The opera opens in the King’s apartment, with him and Gaveston (the robust baritone Gyula Orendt) brazenly flaunting their affair, even as a military adviser, Mortimer (the bright-voiced tenor Peter Hoare), argues that love — any love — is “poison” to both the human body and the body politic. A gaggle of nonspeaking actors with notepads mills about like obsequious officials or timid modern-day reporters, a powerless public hanging on every interaction of the royal family and the King’s enemies.
Isabel, who wants to maintain her position, at first thinks she has no choice but to accommodate her husband’s involvement with Gaveston. But is the courtier engaged in a calculating power move? Has the King chosen him as a way of defiantly asserting his right to indulge in the luxuries of love and culture, even as his realm is wracked with famine and civil unrest? At one point we see the King and Gaveston entwined in a romantic embrace just before an audience arrives to see a play. Their insinuating, sensual lines unfold together, but the musical effect is not exactly contrapuntal: the two voices sound almost codependent.
You think Isabel is going to be the most sympathetic character in the opera. But not long after the start, we see her dark side as she’s startlingly impervious to a group of starving citizens, witnesses to the deprivation and strife spreading throughout the land. One woman, hinting bitterly at the King’s affair with Gaveston, asks a chilling question: “They say we know why the poor sleep three in a bed, but why do the rich?”
The story begins to move toward its bloody conclusion as Isabel realizes the King has gone too far and she has to ally with Mortimer and acquiesce to Gaveston’s capture — and, eventually, his death. With Gaveston gone, the King renounces his wife, leaving himself precariously isolated.
In the queen, Mr. Benjamin has created another remarkable role for Ms. Hannigan’s immense vocal gifts and comprehensive musicianship. He writes lines that shift from earthy emotionalism to angelic purity, knowing that this artist can handle those pivots. He takes advantage of her focused intonation and rhythmic precision to lend even anguished passages structural strength.
Ms. Mitchell and the designer Vicki Mortimer have made the opera’s various scenes — the King’s apartment, Isabel’s chambers, a theater, a prison — different vantage points on the same well-appointed room, with a large fish tank, a display case full of busts and a Francis Bacon-esque portrait. But it’s Mr. Benjamin’s remarkable music that gives the work its charge: The writing is so lush, haunting and detailed — radiant one moment, piercingly dissonant the next — that you are continuously enveloped by the raucous beauty of the sounds.
As the opening scene begins, needling brass riffs protrude over sputtering clusters of hard-edged chords. Sometimes a bed of strings will swell with a prolonged sonority, though the component notes are too restless to stay put. Instrumental lines emerge from atmospheric murmurs, trying to coalesce into melodic fragments.
Mr. Crimp’s text, as in “Written on Skin,” is enigmatic. “You know where I am: inside your life,” Gaveston tells the King. Early on, the King warns Mortimer, who is clearly drawn to the queen, that wherever Mortimer touches the “immaculate surface” of Isabel’s skin, “your politics will leave streaks of my blood.”
Mr. Benjamin savors the strangeness of these words. He was determined, he says in an interview in the program book, to set the text so that it would be audible. He does so impressively, aided by the crisp diction of the singers, often by following the natural rhythms of speech. But he knows when to allow a vocal line to turn mellifluous.
For all the hypnotic allure of the opera, I kept waiting for the music to clobber me. That finally happened, twice, toward the end.
With the King dethroned and arrested, Mortimer has set up house with Isabel, grooming the Boy to become the next king. The Boy is taught his first lesson in leadership — really a lesson in the futility of love and the utility of violence: A madman has appeared claiming to be the king, and Mortimer tries to force the boy to punish him. When the Boy proves too weak, the man is killed in his presence, as the orchestra erupts in gnashing rage.
In the next scene, Mr. Orendt reappears as a Stranger — a figure of death — to claim the King in one last embrace. Then, in an orchestral transition, comes that second burst of vehemence. I won’t give away the opera’s resolution, other than to say that the Boy, now king, has learned his lessons all too well.
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