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George Benjamin: Lessons in Love and Violence [Text by Martin Crimp]



Lessons in Love and Violence is an opera with music by George Benjamin and text by Martin Crimp. The opera, which is based on the story of King Edward II and Piers Gaveston and covers the events set out in Christopher Marlowe's play Edward II, which combines the story of Edward and Gaveston with the deposition of Edward II by Mortimer and the overthrow of Mortimer and Edward's queen Isabella of France by Edward III. The opera is in two parts, of four and three scenes respectively, and is performed without a break. The CD box set contains two booklets. The first is a 24 page synopsis of the opera plus biographies for George Benjamin, Martin Crimp and the cast. The second booklet is a 16 page Libretto of the opera in English.

George Benjamin: Lessons in Love and Violence [Text by Martin Crimp]


In many ways this new opera seeks to repeat the earlier success. Benjamin has stayed faithful to his librettist, Martin Crimp, who has written another spare text, dense in suggestive meanings. Some of the same collaborators are back, notably soprano Barbara Hannigan and, most important, the opera again explores how a forbidden love can lead to acts of horrific violence, a theme that is evidently close to the creators' hearts. A sense of deja vu is not necessarily a bad thing. Benjamin and Crimp had already proved that they can produce work of exceptional quality and that is true again of Lessons in Love and Violence. At just 90 minutes, this is an opera of impressive concentration with not a word or note wasted.

Any doubts lie elsewhere. Before the premiere Hannigan let slip that the opera 'isn't a laugh a minute', and she was not joking. Crimp's text is based on the downfall of Edward II, but what really interests him is the timeless myth of how power corrupts, and the opera peers into a black hole of morality, from which not the slightest glimmer of hope is allowed to escape. In the telling of this oppressive story Benjamin and Crimp are as one. Like Crimp's text, the music is a model of clarity on the surface, while suggesting an undercurrent of evil, which wells up powerfully in the interludes. Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande lurks in the background, not least for its interplay of light and darkness, and with Benjamin himself as conductor the orchestral playing is
precision-tuned. Everyone in the cast fits perfectly, headed by the double act of King and Gaveston, sung by Stephane Degout and Gyula Orendt, seemingly two sides of the same person. Hannigan is outstanding as the Queen, who humiliates a delegation of the starving poor in one of the opera's most chilling scenes. Peter Hoare is his dramatically astute self as power-hungry Mortimer.

Nobody in this story is at all sympathetic and that goes even for the King's young son, the well-cast Samuel Boden, who inaugurates the next generation of bloodletting in the closing minutes. The lessons in love and violence are his. Or maybe, as we witness these harrowing events, they are really pointed at us. Here is an opera to chill the blood, but not, I think, one to love.  Richard Fairman Gramophone

Benjamin's score is 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 Stephane 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. BBC Music Magazine