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Sir George BENJAMIN (b. 1960)
Lessons in Love and Violence, opera in two parts to a text by Martin Crimp
King - Stéphane Degout
Isabel - Barbara Hannigan
Gaveston/Stranger - Gyula Orendt
Mortimer - Peter Hoare
Boy/Young King – Samuel Boden
Witness 1/Singer 1/Woman 1 - Jennifer France
Witness 2/Singer 2/Woman 2 - Krisztina Szabó
Witness 3/Madman - Andri Björn Róbertsson
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/George Benjamin
rec. live, June and July 2018, Dutch National Opera
NIMBUS NI5976 [2 CDs: 84:49]

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.

I greatly enjoyed his first opera, Into the Little Hill, when I had it for review a couple of years ago (review). I could not join in the chorus of praise for his second opera, Written on Skin, because of a feature of the libretto I found quite intolerable. This was that each character followed each of their lines with ‘he said’ or ‘she said,’ an alienation device even more effective than those of Brecht, in that it completely alienated me so that I could not enjoy or even really attend to the music. However, everyone else thought differently (review review). Fortunately, the new work, even though using the same librettist as the previous two, Martin Crimp, abandons this device.

It is loosely based on Marlowe’s play Edward II, representing that king’s infatuation with his favourite Piers Gaveston as a sexual relationship, with the disapproval of the military commander Mortimer who wins over Edward’s wife Isabel. Mortimer arranges for the murder of the king but is in turn exposed and murdered by Edward’s son, later Edward III. In Crimp’s libretto neither the king nor his son is named, and the crowd of secondary characters in Marlowe is eliminated. There are seven scenes, tersely and economically written, though the action is occasionally not clear, and the listener sometimes needs to rely on the synopsis provided by Crimp to understand what is going on. The overall theme, as the title implies, is of love and betrayal. There are some very powerful scenes, notably that of the death of the king.

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. There was one feature of the word setting which gave me pause: although the orchestral music is often fast, the vocal setting is nearly all declamatory and slower, closer to Britten than Berg. This made for a certain lack of variety in the vocal lines, though, since Benjamin obviously knows what he is doing, I shall need to reflect on it.

This work has already been issued on DVD (review ~ review) 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 (when they reprint, the misprint of ‘regiment’ for ‘regimen’ on page 8 should be corrected). 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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