I'm currently in London, on my way back from giving some lectures in Stockholm, and trying to soak in as much art and performance as possible over my four days here. That means, in the former category, checking out the linked Tacita Dean shows at the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Academy of Arts (in their newly renovated Burlington wing), as well as the Bacon and Freud Human, All too Human exhibition at the Tate Britain (I'm skipping the Picasso at Tate Modern). And, in terms of performance, things started off last night with Lessons in Love and Violence, a new opera by composer George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp, that is having its world premiere at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in a production directed by the uber-talented Katie Mitchell.
Benjamin and Crimp have collaborated twice before (on Into the Little Hill in 2006 and Written on Skin in 2012), and this newest work is already booked to play several major international institutions following its London run. Not a huge opera queen, I was attracted to the work not simply because of the buzz surrounding the production and the stellar reviews, but because the plot is based on the story of Edward II's tempestuous and ultimately tragic relationship with his lover and confidante Piers Gaveston. Drawing inspiration in equal measure from Christopher Marlowe and Derek Jarman, Crimp nevertheless adds to and updates the narrative by focusing on the effects of the King's all-consuming passion on his wife and children, as well as how such private emotional fissures spill over into and affect matters of national governance.
Indeed, there is a way in which Mitchell's contemporary setting of the story (aided by superb and sleekly modern designs by Vicki Mortimer) serves to make it a cautionary tale for any politician seeking to negotiate the rule of desire and the rules of politics in an age of intense social media scrutiny. Intimate scenes between the King (a stirringly soulful Stéphane Degout) and Gaveston (a dashing, though perhaps not in full voice, Gyula Orendt) leading up to their downfall, or between the Queen, Isabel (the magnificent Barbara Hannigan), and her son, now the new King (Peter Hoare, making the most of a smallish part), following that end are contrasted with large staff and media scrums in which Mitchell fills the stage with blue-suited bodies literally leaning into the anticipated bloodsport of another public figure's evisceration. That, in the final scene, Crimp gives this to us in the form of the boy-King's execution of Mortimer (an excellent Peter Hoare), the deposed military advisor who had worked to elevate him above his father, attests to how fully and completely has the young new leader absorbed the brutal lessons of power.
Benjamin, who also conducts this production, has created a score that to my untrained ear somehow feels lushly spare, and whose strings include effectively contrastive parts for the harp and what I think was a zither (both were in a box stage right of the orchestra pit). There were also several bits of percussion that stood out as especially strong moments of dramatic punctuation. At an intermissionless 95 minutes, the opera is certainly streamlined and tightly structured. But both the music and the themes make it feel substantial--and also hugely relevant.