Composers: George Benjamin
Compositions: Lessons in Love and Violence
Performers: Stéphane Degout bar, Barbara Hannigan s, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/George Benjamin
Catalogue Number: Opus Arte OA1221D (DVD) OABD7199D (Blu-ray)

When George Benjamin’s Written on Skin premiered in 2012 it triggered a wave. A setting of a libretto by Martin Crimp, it proved that rara avis, a hit contemporary opera subsequently staged all around the world. His first operatic work, 2006’s Into the Little Hill to another Crimp libretto, was well-received in Australia when Sydney Chamber Opera staged it in 2014. So, when Benjamin and Crimp’s third operatic collaboration, Lessons in Love and Violence, premiered at the Royal Opera House in 2018 expectations ran high. Reviews at the time were respectful, though not quite the raves that Skin received. Its appearance on DVD is thus a good opportunity to appreciate its manifold strengths, especially when the audio-visual standards are as high as in this handsome recording on Opus Arte.

A contemporary retelling of the tragedy of King Edward II, Crimp’s text is lean and multi-layered, the dramaturgy sure and admirably taut, especially in Katie Mitchell’s cleanly focussed staging. Librettist, composer and director ensure that the story has both pace and depth, offering revealing portraits of the small cast of characters in this tale of love, revenge and political machinations. Benjamin’s score is a masterpiece of economy yet blossoms readily with musical imagination – just listen to the plucked bass and cimbalom over ominous percussion and brooding bass clarinet that accompanies the two fateful “palm readings”.

A potent voiced Stéphane Degout makes much of the King, the portrayal of his emotional downfall pulsing with anguish and disbelief. Barbara Hannigan is no simple “she-wolf”, delivering a three-dimensional portrait of Isabel and singing with grace and power. Gyula Orendt makes a sensual, dangerous Gaveston, with Peter Hoare awkward and ruthless as the hated Mortimer. Samuel Boden’s silky-toned Young King and Ocean Barrington-Cook as his sister, turn chillingly in the denouement, the result of their lessons in love and violence. A must see for lovers of new opera.