‘Lessons in Love and Violence’ review

Music, Classical and opera
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Katie Mitchell directs Martin Crimp and George Benjamin’s searing take on the story of Edward II

It’s nothing to do with loving a man. It’s love full stop that is poison'. The first line of Martin Crimp’s libretto for George Benjamin’s hotly anticipated new opera plunges us into the bureaucratic world of a European court, in which the king’s desperate love for a man is leaving state affairs in disarray. ‘Lessons in Love and Violence’ is loosely inspired by the story of Edward II, the king whose love for Piers Gaveston is immortalised in Christopher Marlowe’s subversive, homoerotic 1594 play.

Avant-garde director Katie Mitchell is known for scandalising opera audiences with onstage brutality but this production has a dreamlike feel, sucking the audience into this king’s life-ruining romantic obsession. Stéphane Degout has the unworldliness of a man who’s so in love he can barely make sense of his surroundings. A collection of wooden panels, a giant fish tank, and some busts of great rulers appear and reappear in different formations in every scene. When Gaveston is murdered, the fish tank is drained of life. 

Gyula Orendt’s performance as the king’s lover is striking: sinuous, forceful, finding all the soulfulness of Benjamin’s jazz-inflected notes. Benjamin’s delicate, forboding score barely uses the chorus, focusing intently on filling out the emotional lives of the four main players. Crimp’s text is full of equally vivid imagery. Warwick, the nobleman who’s trying his best to dissuade the king from his love affair, is described as an animal with his snout up the queen’s skirts: he’s dogged, violent (even if Peter Hoare’s flexible tenor seems a little light for this thuggish role). The queen herself is the opera’s most complex character, and Barbara Hannigan makes beautiful work of her subtle librettos. In one hugely memorable scene, she’s set upon by a horde of ordinary people who are in living in desperate poverty. She attempts to demonstrate that music and beauty are worth more than money by dissolving a pearl in vinegar in front of them. 

Played out in the splendour of the Royal Opera House, the irony of this scene is biting. It’s not the only sharp political note in the story, either. The story’s ending twists itself into something that’s both feminist and a bit disturbing, one which weighs up the transcendent power of love against the pervasive weight of violence, seen and unseen.


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