Beauty and brutality in George Benjamin’s Lessons in Love and Violence at Zurich Opera

SwitzerlandSwitzerland George Benjamin, Lessons in Love and Violence: Soloists, Philharmonia Zurich / Ivan Volkov (conductor). Zurich Opera, 4.6.2023. (MF)

Zurich Opera’s Lessons in Love and Violence © Herwig Prammer

Director – Evgeny Titov
Set design – Rufus Didwiszus
Costume design – Falk Bauer
Lighting design – Martin Gebhardt
Dramaturgy – Claus Spahn

King Edward II – Lauri Vasar
Isabel – Jeanine De Bique
Gaveston / Stranger – Björn Bürger
Mortimer – Mark Milhofer
Boy, later King Edward III – Sunnyboy Dladla
Girl – Nini Vlatković
Witness 1 / Singer 1 / Woman 1 – Isabelle Haile
Witness 2 / Singer 2 / Woman 2 – Josy Santos
Witness 3 / Madman – Andrew Moore
Extras Association of Zurich Opera

This intense 90-minute piece starts under the bedsheets from which Edward II, born in 1284 as the first Prince of Wales and crowned in 1307, and Piers Gaveston, his favourite, emerge. The plot of George Benjamin’s opera Lessons in Love and Violence by playwright Martin Crimp is based on Christopher Marlowe’s 1594 drama Edward II.

Power-weary King Edward neglects his governing duties and his people for a passionate love of the arts and a homoerotic relationship with Gaveston. The King’s adversary is the ambitious army commander Roger Mortimer, lover-in-waiting of Edward’s wife Queen Isabella. Together with Isabella, Mortimer orders the execution of Gaveston and later of the Monarch himself. Brutality spills over to the next generation, the nameless children of Isabella and Edward who have learned their lessons in violence. Love plays more of an ancillary role in their education if any.

The score is by Sir George Benjamin, born in London in 1963, who was a student of Olivier Messiaen. Benjamin has become a leading light of contemporary music as a composer, conductor and pianist. He has received global acclaim for his operas Written on Skin (first performed 2012 in Aix-en-Provence) and Lessons in Love and Violence, staged in Zurich for only the second time after its 2018 world premiere at the London Royal Opera House, where Benjamin himself conducted.

Playwright Martin Crimp first penned the libretto. Marlowe’s play was a point of departure rather than the basis for an adaptation. Crimp’s compressed story revolves around three historic events, Gaveston’s murder, the deposition of Edward II and then young Edward III’s coup, resulting in his mother Isabel’s loss of power and the assassination of Mortimer. Crimp puts the characters forming the plot’s love quartet and their dynamic under close scrutiny, the King and his wife, the mother of his two children whom he once loved, Gaveston, the King’s lover, and Mortimer, the King’s turncoat counsellor who becomes his arch-enemy.

Upon receipt of the completed text, Benjamin set out on composing the score. For him, opera is not an orchestral tonal poem but a place for communication between vocals, words, and the orchestra. The latter plays an important but not the main part. Benjamin’s music is a psychologically precise, classical approach to literary-dramatic material, portraying sharply contoured characters with the use of expressively vivid orchestration. Still, the music is surprisingly sparingly instrumented, encapsulating the characters’ intense emotions. Next to the traditional string, woodwind and brass sections, the orchestration includes two harps, a celesta, a cimbalom, and a wide range of percussion. The fantastically disposed Philharmonia Zurich is allowed full steam tutti in some of the interludes between the seven scenes.

Benjamin’s music and Crimp’s plot and text converge in a congenial manner. Together, they create an acute declension of the characters’ emotional states. The equivalence of love and violence suggested by the title is apparent at best. The lessons dispensed on love illustrate its limits and destructive force more than anything else. Perhaps a reminder of the Tolstoian diagnosis that only the unhappy families are distinctive? The characters display a captivating ambivalence. Although cynics might take the King’s exclamation concluding the first scene, ‘No violence please. Let ours be a regiment of tolerance and love’, for a mere slogan, part of him genuinely wishes for just that.

(l-r) Jeanine De Bique (Isabel),  Lauri Vasar (Edward II), Björn Bürger  (Gaveston) © Herwig Prammer

The production’s directing (by Kazakhstan-born Evgeny Titov), set design (Rufus Didwiszus), lighting (Martin Gebhardt) and costumes (Falk Bauer) are of compelling unity. Director Titov narrates the story in a wide, ever intensifying arch. The set’s background is a dark green light projection evoking Sigmar Polke’s stained glass windows in nearby Grossmünster church. The eery scenery increases, and contrasts with, the presence and artificiality of the accurately lit singers and actors. A generous cast of extras, resembling undead beings, spookily underlines the rulers’ detachment from their people.

The singers form a tantalising ensemble straight up to the demanding task set by the production team. A fantastic Jeanine De Bique debuts in Zurich as Isabel, her soprano effortlessly spanning from powerful drama to touching fragility, matched by her equally majestic, sadistic and vulnerable stage presence. Lauri Vasar is a highly versatile King, with a strong baritone, and offers a poignant performance as the bedevilled monarch. His lover Gaveston is Björn Bürger, a forceful baritone. Tenor Mark Milhofer’s Mortimer starts out as an uptight fonctionnaire soon morphing into a cold-hearted, power-driven murderer. Sunnyboy Dladla as Boy and actress Nini Vlatković in the silent role as Girl hauntingly accompany the four main characters throughout. The singers’ cast is completed by excellent Isabelle Haile, Josy Santos and Andrew Moore as witnesses and madman respectively.

Conductor Ilan Volkov leads a Philharmonia Zurich in all respects up to the job. Following Benjamin’s credo, they allow for singing and words to communicate with the orchestra. Lyric accompaniment of the protagonists is complemented by etherical hazes in the strings, ominously magic exoticism (as Gaveston reads the King’s palm) and symphonic power in the interludes.

Lessons in Love and Violence is this season’s contemporary work for Zurich opera. A beautiful, brutal and memorable piece of art on stage. There are only two more performances you can catch, on 8 and 11 June.

Michael Fischer

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