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.

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"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...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... 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.
- 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

"We had been accustomed to think of George Benjamin as a fastidious composer of a relatively small number of jewelled works, perhaps rather like the late Oliver Knussen. But in recent years he has surprised us by developing a flair for the medium of opera, normally thought of as rather a bold and brash form. Yet he has lost none of his fastidiousness and it is rather wonderful that he has made such a success in a field where success is so difficult.

The music is wonderfully inventive and varied, written for a larger orchestra than before, though not huge, and with an interesting emphasis on bass instruments (a contrabass trombone is required, also both a basset horn and a bass clarinet as well as a contrabassoon). The musical idiom suggests Britten pushed in the direction of Berg’s Wozzeck, and I was reminded that Britten had hoped to study with Berg. I also wondered whether Benjamin, like Berg, had an underlay of traditional musical forms under his drama, as it seemed to have its own logic.

The word setting is admirably clear and, except in a few passages where the singers overlap one another, is easily followed...

This work has already been issued on DVD
but this audio version, though it has the same cast, is not the same performance. The DVD version is of the première at Covent Garden in May 2018. This version is taken from performances by the Dutch National Opera later that year, with, of course, its own orchestra. I have not seen the original production or the DVDs, so I cannot comment on how this performance may differ from the première production, but I imagine that the vocal performances had settled down by the time of this recording, the orchestral playing is at least as secure and the composer has now had greater experience in conducting his own work. He does have a considerable reputation as a conductor in his own right, again like Knussen. The stage production put the characters into modern dress and the director apparently introduced a crowd of extras. Listeners to the audio recording are spared these distractions.

Nimbus have again done Benjamin proud. There two booklets, one giving the synopsis, a discussion, and pictures and biographies of the cast, composer and librettist. The other gives the complete libretto. The sound is admirably clear and full. If I wanted to be picky, I could point out that the timings of the individual scenes and tracks are not given, but that is a minor detail.

The booklet explains that Lessons in Love and Violence was commissioned by no fewer than seven opera houses, together with Benjamin’s publishers. It is wonderful to think that a new British opera has had such support. I look forward to Benjamin’s next opera with a good deal of anticipation."

Stephen Barber

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