When a band has a monster hit with its first album, the follow-up is always awaited with some sense of trepidation. Can it really match the impact of the first? Will it be more of the same, or break out in bold new directions?

Barbara Hannigan (Isabel), Stéphane Degout (King), Gyula Orendt (Gaveston) © ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
Barbara Hannigan (Isabel), Stéphane Degout (King), Gyula Orendt (Gaveston)
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey

George Benjamin and Martin Crimp's second major opera Lessons in Love and Violence, premiered last night at the Royal Opera, shares a great deal with their earlier Written on Skin: same format (90ish minutes without an interval, broken into a series of scenes), same production team (led by Katie Mitchell), same leading soprano (Barbara Hannigan), same basic area of interest: the power relationships surrounding a love triangle in an ancient story which is rendered timeless. Even the opera’s title could have applied just as well to the earlier work.

Under the surface, Lessons in Love and Violence represents a not inconsiderable refinement of Benjamin, Crimp and Mitchell’s craft, most notably in the score. Benjamin favours sparse orchestral textures: the orchestra has many instruments, but he often deploys just a few of them at a time, in constantly changing timbres, some of them unusual and vivid. His lines are short – it’s rare for the principal arc of a melodic phrase to be longer than half a dozen notes – but he he can pack an exceptional amount of dark beauty into just those few notes, putting me in mind of Britten. That’s helped by Benjamin knowing exactly which voices he's writing for and how to fit the music to them like a glove: as a result, his vocal writing is never showy but always effective. You’re not going to come away from this opera dazzled by the singers’ technical prowess, but throughout its progress, you will have gained a deep sense that the music they are singing is a direct outflowing of their characters’ mental states.

Samuel Boden (Boy), Stéphane Degout (King), Gyula Orendt (Gaveston), Ocean Barrington-Cook (Girl) © ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
Samuel Boden (Boy), Stéphane Degout (King), Gyula Orendt (Gaveston), Ocean Barrington-Cook (Girl)
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey

Those mental states are pretty depressing all round, engendering little sympathy for any of the protagonists. The story is that of the murder in 1312 of King Edward II’s favourite, and probable lover, Piers Gaveston, followed shortly by that of the king himself; the story's medieval context is stripped away by Vicki Mortimer's designs so that this is a power struggle that could have happened in any place and any time. The King is a weak man who believes he can mask inaction with bluster but collapses under pressure either from his advisers or his lover; it’s a tricky role to portray credibly but Stéphane Degout negotiates it well. To the role of Queen Isabel, Hannigan brings her trademark ability to negotiate a difficult musical phrase with perfect timbre. It's another tricky role because ultimately, Isabel is ineffectual: her real goal – regaining her husband’s love – is unachievable, so all we can see is the flailings of a woman who grows increasingly desolate. Gyula Orendt is a truly vicious Gaveston, a swaggering brute of a man, and the show is stolen by Peter Hoare as Mortimer, the courtier who is dispossessed by Edward at Gaveston's behest and becomes his ultimate nemesis: Hoare is strong, urgent and highly credible as the man whose innate loyalty is eventually displaced by realpolitik.

Peter Hoare (Mortimer) © ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
Peter Hoare (Mortimer)
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey

The singers' diction is excellent, and in his joint role as composer and conductor, Benjamin makes absolutely sure that we can hear them; the music is constantly in the service of the action. Several of the weaknesses of Written on Skin are absent. With such an unappealing set of protagonists, it would be easy for proceedings to sink into a slough of despond, but they don’t. Benjamin is particularly sure-footed in his changes of pace and mood. Crimp largely eschews the irritating use of the third person; the libretto is straightforward, to the point and contains many crucial phrases (of the sort that Verdi would have called a parola scenica) which Benjamin is adept at making into dramatic turning points. Mitchell’s habitual directorial tic remains, with the action surrounded by besuited corporate-looking people carrying clipboards and getting on with their work. However, where this merely served to irritate in Written in Skin, here, they are useful in delineating the fact that a love triangle which would be private in any normal circumstances is happening here in the spotlight of the common people.

I question the opera’s title. The inner nature of violence is hardly explored and there are few lessons in love. It’s a cold piece: Gaveston seems to feel cupidity more than love; the King loves Gaveston only because he perceives that Gaveston loves him unconditionally; the reason for Isabel loving her husband in the first place remains unclear. But there are plenty of lessons in power and the tension between human beings, with Benjamin’s wonderful score making this a powerful dramatic experience from beginning to end.

****1