George Benjamin and Martin Crimp’s much-anticipated second full-length opera Lessons in Love and Violence premiered in London in 2018, where it had the difficult task of living up to – and breaking away from – 2012’s Written on Skin. A new production in Zurich ultimately both illuminates its strengths and highlights its flaws. 

Björn Bürger (Gaveston) and Ivan Ludlow (Edward II)
© Herwig Prammer

Inspired by the relationship between 14th-century King Edward II and his favourite, Piers Gaveston, the opera tells the story of a privileged household falling apart. For daring to question the king’s relationship with his lover, military advisor Mortimer is stripped of his status and possessions, a move that triggers a cycle of revenge engulfing not only the king and Gaveston, but also his queen, Isabel, and their two children. Jealousy, greed, cycles of punishment and loss drive the tragedy, a cycle of misplaced accusations and miscarriages of justice. A close advisor sent into the wilderness, a fool unflinchingly strangled, children carrying the terrible weight of their parents’ errors: the whole has a Shakespearean sense of grandeur and despair.

Jeanine De Bique (Isabel) and ensemble
© Herwig Prammer

Musically, the work is an unambiguous triumph, consistently carrying off these ambitious themes with dexterity and poise. The instrumentation – cimbalom, celesta, harp – consistently offers striking textures, with a few instruments brought to the fore in turn, weaving together in pairs and trios, and the players of the Zürich Philharmonia consistently sounded fantastic. In the first scene, a beautiful, angular horn solo entwines with Gaveston’s erotically charged aria like a second voice. When the story starts to twist irretrievably into darkness, sharp brass clusters resonate like a call to arms. Rich, unusual choices in the percussion add both playfulness and strangeness to the soundscape, including a disturbing, almost dance-like motif in the scenes when Gaveston reads the king’s hand to predict his future.

Lessons in Love and Violence
© Herwig Prammer

Benjamin's vocal writing is radiant. Isabel's part swoops and dives to the very edges of the soprano tessitura, without ever appearing to challenge the wonderful Jeanine De Bique. Her voice was sometimes light and liquid, with delicate pianissimos in the very upper range, and other times direct and polished. The rest of the casting is close to flawless as well. Ivan Ludlow made for a charismatic king, with a warm, mature voice and strong stage presence. Mark Milhofer was downright creepy as Mortimer, milking the trembling edges of his falsettos for effect, then suddenly turning to steel and cracking a whip with such ferocity that the audience collectively flinched. As Gaveston, Björn Bürger radiated bitterness and disdain even as he charmed everyone with his rounded baritone. Even the minor players stepped up to the challenge: the Greek-chorus-style duets between Isabelle Haile and Josy Santos were particularly strange and affecting, their voices a mix of tender resonance and friction.

Benjamin and his long-time librettist Martin Crimp have always placed the text front and centre, and under Ilan Volkov’s sensitive musical direction, the singers made sure that every word shone. The mythical quality of the story is given both depth and strangeness by Crimp’s deft turns of phrase. Always, there is an angle, a twist, something bitter to offset the sweet.

Ivan Ludlow (Edward II) and Jeanine De Bique (Isabel)
© Herwig Prammer

Considered purely in terms of abstract text and music, then – if such a thing is possible – the work is a five-star success. Its ethics, however, are far more ambiguous – and this impacts deeply on its overall effect. The work seems to offer a somewhat bitter commentary on our desire for spectacle and Evgeny Titov’s production leans into this in a series of cynical gestures that are occasionally thought-provoking, but risk feeling gratuitous: starving masses, reduced to poverty by Edward’s wars, are portrayed as gurning idiots; the king’s daughter strips away her gown to reveal a male body in the final moments of the opera, for no apparent reason.

This approach not only makes for uncomfortable politics, but risks undercutting the tragic impact of the story, sending titters across the auditorium at unfortunate moments. That said, this sense of cold distance comes into its own in the third scene, the play-within-the-play, a retelling of the biblical story of David and Jonathan, where uncanny white-painted figures materialise, dripping with blood and gold. “Is this the spectacle you want?” the opera seems to be asking. “Here you go!” 

Mark Milhofer (Mortimer), Björn Bürger (Gaveston), Josy Santos and Isabelle Haile
© Herwig Prammer

Perhaps it would be easier to decide whether the production is successful in underlining the opera’s messages if it were clearer what the opera is saying in the first place. For a work that calls itself “Lessons”, it seemingly offers few. Unlike a Greek or Elizabethan tragedy, there is neither lofty moral nor a strong sense of human emotion or real connection here – something that was a transformative underlying force in Written on Skin. A lack of sympathy for the central characters is one thing; an inability to understand their deeper motives – and therefore, to some extent, to feel the strength of the narrative arc – quite another. A moving, complex, troubling work, Lessons in Love and Violence is nevertheless lacking in some crucial element to tie it all together and bring it home.