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Lessons in Love and Violence is a right royal affair with music to die for

17 May, 2018 — By Sebastian Taylor

Barbara Hannigan as Isabel, Stéphane Degout as King and Gyula Orendt as Gaveston in Lessons in Love and Violence. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

The composer/librettist duo George Benjamin/Martin Crimp have done it again with their new opera Lessons in Love and Violence at the Royal Opera House.

Five years ago, they triumphed with their Written on Skin opera loosely based on a 13th-century troubadour’s tale. Now, they’ve plundered medieval times again for a piece based on the notorious reign of Edward II of England in the years 1307-1327. He is notori­ous mainly for his long-running homosexual affair with courtier Gaveston, but also for persistent stand-offs with powerful barons, economic hard times and English defeat at the disastrous Battle of Bannockburn.

All this is chopped up into seven scenes in the short 90-minute opera directed by Katie Mitchell who also directed Written on Skin. First, we get the banishment of the barons’ leader Mortimer from the court; then his intrigues against Gaveston; and moving love scenes between Edward II and Gaveston. Then we get the killing of Gaveston.

Mortimer and the king’s wife Isabel set up house together, grooming the king’s son to be puppet-king, giving him lessons in the violent arts of kingship. Once Edward II is killed, his son takes control and puts his lessons into good effect by killing Mortimer.

All the singers wear modern clothes giving the somewhat eerie effect that it could be an opera about Brexit there’s so much intriguing and killing going on.

George Benjamin’s music is to die for, particularly when he lets rip in interludes during scene changes. He conducts his own score.
Soloists are terrific, notably amazing Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan as Isabel. She sings like an eagle, swooping down with a clear line only to seize her prey with a full-throttled vibrato.

• Lessons in Love and Violence is at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on May 18, 24 and 26. 020 7304 4000, www.roh.org.uk

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