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Every man is an island

Lessons in Love and Violence (George Benjamin/Martin Crimp/Katie Mitchell), Royal Opera House, 18 May 2018

Samuel Boden (Boy, Young King). Credits: Stephen Cummiskey

A premiere of a new opera by a living composer is always an important event, and competes here with new ballets by modern choreographers. Thus, Wayne McGregor’s ‘Obsidian Tear’ (to works ‘Nyx’ and ‘Lachen verlernt’ by Esa-Pekka Salonen) and ‘Woolf Works’ (music by Max Richter, inspired by Virginia Woolf’s novels) that were the most striking examples of new exiting events in contemporary ballet of the season 2016/2017. During the season 2017/2018 English National Opera staged Nico Muhly’s ‘Marney’, while Lyric Hammersmith restaged the 2016 ROH production of Philip Venables’ ‘4.48 Psychosis’ based on the works of Sarah Kane. The main stage of Royal Opera House, however, has been reserved mostly for operas of the established repertoire, and that is why there was anticipation and exitement to see a new opera ‘Lessons in Love and Violence’ by the composer George Benjamin on its stage. It was especially intriguing since it is his new collaboration with the highly successful team of playwright Martin Crimp and theatre director Katie Mitchell with whom Benjamin worked on his last opera Written on Skin ( premiered in Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012).

Barbara Hannigan (Isabel), Stéphane Degout (King) and Gyula Orendt (Gaveston). Credits: Stephen Cummiskey

The question of partnerships and long collaborations is a very interesting to explore for a historian and anthropologist of art, since human relationships, bonds, trusts and hidden practices and knowledges in the style of Bourdieu’s cultural capital develop intensively between individuals or a team who work together for a long time. And in this case it is a triangle of creative forces formed by two previously established dual partnerships. Martin Crimp and Katie Mitchell are a well-established pair of collaborators in theatre, Crimp’s ‘Attempts on her Life’ (2007) and Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ (2006) in his translation being one of the most important in their partnership. George Benjamin and Martin Crimp began working together in 2006, when the chamber opera ‘Into the Little Hill’ was premiered at Festival d’Automne in Paris (staged by ROH in 2009). It was since their second opera together – ‘Written on Skin’ (2012) Katie Mitchell came on board. This is how a unique combination of artists came into being, and the trio met again for production of ‘Lessons in Love and Violence’, a new opera of Benjamin that London audiences could see on main stage of Covent Garden in May 2018. As Mitchell often collaborates with the designer Vicky Mortimer, she also became part of this closely-knit group.

Barbara Hannigan (Isabel) and Stéphane Degout (King). Credits: Stephen Cummiskey

It is extremely fascinating to find out what both Crimp and Benjamin have to say about the process of writing an opera together, as this is indeed very close to what an anthropologist would explore when studying the process of human creativity. They are both aware that text will become music, and music must reflect the poetry and idionsyncracy of the text, but the presence of their collaborator is usually a virtual one, as, after discussing the concept and the story (coming from Crimp, and involving some archival research, as materials for opera are usually drawn from history), they mainly work independently. However, Crimp is constantly aware of the ecomony of words that he needs to have, as the text will abound in silences and pauses on stages, and operatic articulation is slower than theatrical speech. He also pays additional attention to his choice of vocabulary in terms of its suitability for singing, while not being ultimately self-restrictive here.

Stéphane Degout (King) and Gyula Orendt (Gaveston). Credits: Stephen Cummiskey

Crimp also works on the structure of the story, characterizations of main protagonists through their words and deeds, and inserts his own signature modern and exquisitely neurotic feel into seemingly historical situations. Benjamin, on his side, has to think how to characterize each character in musical terms, while being aware of tessitura requirements for each particular singer involved, and he also carefully develops specific orchestral and vocal atmosphere for each scene of the story. The tasks for the composer get harder when the scene has an interaction of two or more characters, or when they have to speak (sing) over the ‘play within a play’, while he also wants to experiment with additional new inventions in his orchestration. Benjamin has to hear these large pannos in his head (he rarely uses piano), and he inserts new layers of composed music slowly into his inner score as it grows and takes final shape in his head.

Barbara Hannigan (Isabel) and Mortimer (Peter Hoare). Credits: Stephen Cummiskey

The result of this elaborate work is astonishingly beautiful and poetical, while daringly poignant and utterly modern in its feel. It is partly based on Marlowe’s play ‘Edward II’ (it was staged by National Theatre in 2013 with wonderful John Heffernan in the title role), and uses some additional historical sources to build up a story of the relationshop between Edward II, his male lover Gaveston, his wife Isabel and his military advisor Mortimer. The ‘lessons’ of the title are in fact those learned by Edward’s son who gradually moves from the role of the observer to the revengful Hamletian (or Oreste-like) ruler. Crimp’s text thus acquires a voyeuristic quality characteristic for Jacobean drama (one could recall Middleton’s ‘Revenger’s Tragedy’), while being very meta-theatrically modern at the same time. Audiences are invited to observe the killings and build up the objective and subjective view of them at the same time, while the ‘innocent’ and ‘naïve’ in the action change into powerful actors and vice versa, those who were once in power, find themselves emasculated and killed in prison.

Madman (Andri Björn Róbertsson) one the left. Credits: Stephen Cummiskey

This Foucauldian poignancy of ambivalence of power and inevitable suppression of individual by its forces is revealed very poetically in Crimp’s text. In comparison to Krzysztof Warlikowski’s recent take on Janáček’s ‘From the House of the Dead’ where imprisonment and consequent degradation of the soul, as well as similar voyeuristic and meta-theatrical elements were presented with disparaging crudeness and dominating straightforwardness, ‘Lessons of Love and Violence’ are almost Maeterlinckian (reminding one of Debussy’s ‘Pelléas et Mélisande) in their abounding uncertainties, all-invading poetic atmospere and elements of mysticism. It is interesting with this regard that type of vocal singing in Benjamin’s opera is close to both of these operas in its closeness to structure of normal human speech and its innovative non-adherence to classic canons of an aria or a duet in an opera. All these elements, supported by similarly poetic orchestration breathing with its silences and giving space to solos of particular instruments (especially oboes and cellos, as their timbres are close to human voice) by Benjamin, immerse the audiences in a quite unique world of this opera. Vicky Mortimer’s sinister and poetic design, full of sea-water blue hues and featuring an aquarium that always changes its position as the rooms ‘rotate’ after each dimming of the stage, forms the final picture. This constant change and movement is like a vertiginous swirl of water, where everyone gets a multitude of chances to see oneself and others from different perspectives, but with the inevitable loss of reason and ground in the process.

Witnesses 1, 2 and 3. Credits: Stephen Cummiskey

The plot line of the opera is centered around subsequent killings: that of Gaveston, king’s lover, plotted by his adviser Mortimer, that of the King himself (a Stranger who comes to kill him is doubled by Gyula Orendt, who plays Gaveston), and that of Queen Isabel and her new husband Mortimer by Edward’s young son, now a ruler. That might sound indeed like a Jacobean drama (the background of staged masques for several of these killings is also very telling), but Crimp and Mitchell succeed in making it a surreal, a-historical opera about metaphysical, almost impossible loneliness of someone in love in the world that is concerned with socio-political issues. Although social issues do matter – the scene with three petitioners from ‘the people’, especially that of a madman is moving, it is the isolation of the invididuals in the walls of their own feelings that is the core of the production. Everyone here is like a pearl that will dissolve in acid, and this image, with beautifully lyrical and powerful Barbara Hannigan (Queen Isabel) throwing the pearl in a prepared bowl in her dialogue with visitors from the street, becomes a central metaphor of ‘Lessons in Love and Violence’.

Stéphane Degout (King) and Gyula Orendt (Gaveston). Credits: Stephen Cummiskey

King Edward II (Stéphane Degout) is isolated by his desire that contradicts everybody’s wishes and plans (and it does not really matter that his lover is a man), Gaveston is isolated in his mysticism, in his existence for some unknown purposes (he is a seer of fates, he is only concerned with the King and his own presence around him), Isabel is alone in being rejected by her husband, Mortimer (Peter Hoare) is also on his own because he is the one who cares about the machinery of the state, and the young boy (Samuel Boden) is under a very lonely pressure of making sense of all these cruel and routine killings he sees. The madman with a cat (Andri Björn Róbertsson) seems to be the only one who has openly let the acid kill him, without hiding it behind the exteriors of masques and décor of the castle, and thus becomes a second, or doubling metaphor of this production – an individual gone made under pressure, again almost Foucauldian, but also Maeterlinckian in the thinness of line between poetry, fantasy and loss of mind.

Samuel Boden (Boy/Young King), Ocean Barrington-Cook (Girl), Barbara Hannigan (Isabel) Credits: Stephen Cummiskey

The music of Benjamin, who also conducted during the evening, becomes an incredibly powerful, on-the spot, uniquely modern and poetic channel of all this isolation and lyricism of human soul. Here every death is beautiful, every suffering is exalted, every line is T.S.Eliot-like in its ability to encompass the philosophical side and thus the scope of each character’s existence in this world. Operatic writing here is close to narrative schemes, pregnant with long silences, evolving along with long phrases, always living notes hanging instead of neatly cutting musical phrases. It requiress listeners’ intense concentration for each episode, with demands for the audiences doubling when the lines are sung over others when interlocutors appear on the stage, as in Benjamin’s writing all of them must be heard, and not in unison, but in discord. Instruments of the orchestra seem to also have their own piercing, almost human voices, and it is maybe for the first time that I listened to solos of oboes, cellos or hushed undertones of bassoons in the pit with the same high level of attention paid to singers on stage. Some additional instruments (harp, celeste, and some percussions) also spill into side boxes, and Benjamin articulated his conducting by passionately interweaving the instruments and the voices, as though he was writing his score all over again in front of us – and creating a beautiful web indeed.

Credits: Stephen Cummiskey

This was the evening that made me understand how empathy of the listener develops and what are the conditions for it to grow. Evidently, it requires some rest for mind in silences, asks for time to consider things heard in pauses, does not need condescension and eagerly accepts the sophisticated poetry of the text and intricate scoring of the orchestration. Additionally, it also needs to be taken along by particular performers, such as like Barbara Hannigan and Stéphane Degout. And when this tight knot of sense spreads itself into a stage design that corresponds to all these different level of meanings and is minimalistic enough for us visually create our own fantasy scapes (especially in the scenes with the pearl and the successive deaths), the whole experience becomes a true catharsis, where intellectual elements could not disentangled from movements of our heart, memory and imagination. A standard to be set for other composers and new operas to be seen and heard, as we are eagerly waiting for such experiences.

Barbara Hannigan (Isabel). Credits: Stephen Cummiskey

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