When you’ve written two outstand-ingly successful operas, the pressure to deliver a third can be tough. And George Benjamin, whose Into the Little Hill and Written on Skin have been the hot properties of modern British opera in recent years, has clearly tried to limit the chance of failure by delivering his new Lessons in Love and Violence on much the same terms as before, and with much the same collaborators: librettist Martin Crimp, director Katie Mitchell, designer Vicki Mortimer and female lead Barbara Hannigan.
It’s a winning team. And what they have come up with this time revisits the mood and manner of the previous pieces to the extent that it proceeds with stealth, compressed emotion and a clean particularity that tells an old tale in a new way.
Lessons is, at face value, the love story of Edward II and Piers Gaveston, whose bad outcome we know from history and Christopher Marlowe. But as the libretto insists, being gay isn’t the issue here so much as simply being in love – and how it can undermine the exercise of power. The “lessons” of the title are learned, all too effectively, by Edward’s heir. And from the gory nature of the final scene, it isn’t going to be happy-ever-after for the English throne.
All this is promising, dramatically. And with that winning team, how could it fail? Except I fear it does. Like many in the audience, I sat in Covent Garden willing it to work; and as an exercise in atmosphere and texture it’s undoubtedly compelling. There are moments of great beauty in the score, conducted here by the composer. And the staging, which updates the action to our own times, has a coolly understated elegance.
But cool it is. Benjamin’s operatic gifts tend to rely on an accumulating but restrained dynamic that holds back, and back, until the tension breaks into explosive drama. But in Lessons there is constant pressure with no obvious release. And waiting for what never comes makes the mere 100 minutes of the piece feel slow, low-key and unfulfilled. I might be tempted to replace that last epithet with “constipated” if it didn’t undervalue the exquisite tastefulness of everything about the score.
Good taste is actually its undoing. Opera is a knockabout affair that needs an element of circus to project up to the gallery. But Benjamin is squeamish about circus: he’s too careful, cerebral, fastidious.
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