A cool reception for Covent Garden’s Lessons in Love

First reactions to last night’s world premiere of George Benjamin’s opera Lessons in Love and Violence.

Alexandra Coghlan in theartsdesk.com, under the headline ‘Savage elegance never quite glows red-hot’: Three murders, two political coups, a deposition and a betrayal give the opera plenty of meat, but this isn’t a piece that’s interested in doing. If music is, famously, the space between the notes, then Benjamin and Crimp have devised a drama that lives between the scenes. The spare, suggestive beauty of Crimp’s libretto and Benjamin’s music (which never states when it can imply, never implies where it can simply leave a dramatic door ajar) leaves room for the audience, and having been invited into their cruel world it’s almost impossible to leave.

Barry Millington, Evening Standard: If there is a countervailing force of goodness or genuine love here, it escaped me. 

Andrew Clements in The Guardian: There’s a pervading air of menace, but the drama’s implicit violence only becomes explicit in some of the orchestral interludes. If Benjamin’s score is not quite as luminous and beguiling as his orchestral writing in Written in Skin, there are still some remarkable colours and effects – soaring horn lines, long, self-renewing melodic strands, pungent punctuations from cimbalom and wooden percussion. That is matched in some of Benjamin’s vocal writing, especially Isabel’s spiralling melismas , tailor-made for Barbara Hannigan’s extraordinary agility, and the lustrous honeyed lines in the final scenes for the counter-tenor Son (who becomes Edward III), beautifully delivered by Samuel Boden…. In the end the terrible story becomes the excuse for some striking music rather than being driven along by it.

Rupert Christiansen, the Telegraph: ‘I left Covent Garden impressed rather than excited or moved. For all the refinements, Benjamin and Crimp haven’t moved on from Written on Skin so much as shuffled the cards to play the same game. Lessons in Love and Violence should be heard and seen by everyone seriously interested in the future of opera, but it lacks that magical element – surprise.’

Michael Church, the Independent: Benjamin’s fabled brilliance as an orchestrator produces a finely-wrought sonic tapestry: it’s as accessible as film music, but with original effects thanks to compositional alchemy and unfamiliar instruments including a cimbalom and steel drums. The vocal line may be relentless recitative, but the instrumental sound-world is a seductive amalgam of late-Romanticism and early-Modernism. The interludes with which the scenes are punctuated could be extracted to form the basis for a lovely orchestral suite. Benjamin insists that he doesn’t do ‘tunes’, but I left the theatre wishing that he occasionally would. 

Alice Savile in Time Out: Avant-garde director Katie Mitchell is known for scandalising opera audiences with onstage brutality (notably her take on ‘Hamlet’) but this production has a dreamlike feel, sucking the audience into this king’s life-ruining romantic obsession. Stéphane Degout has the unworldliness of a man who’s so in love he can barely make sense of his surroundings. A collection of wooden panels, a giant fish tank, and some busts of great rulers appear and reappear in different formations in every scene. When Gaveston is murdered, the fish tank is drained of life. 

Anne Ozorio, classical-iconoclast: Though the structure Benjamin uses is beautiful, like a series of miniature paintings in an illuminated album, it is also stylized and creates a sense of emotional disengagement.  It’s as if we’re observing specimens from a distance :the idea of fish in fish tanks, again. Nothing wrong with stylization, per se.  It was a feature of Greek tragedy, and is relevant to the wider implications of this tragedy, too. Thus the vocal lines are semi-abstract too, refecting Crimp’s background as poet.

photo: ROH

UPDATE: Barbara Hannigan responds

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  • It seems to have been the usual conventions of postwar modernist aesthetics, sprinkled with nostalgic gestures to earlier, musically better times:

    “…… the instrumental sound-world is a seductive amalgam of late-Romanticism and early-Modernism.”

    Idioms like Benjamin’s, however cleverly constructed, are not much suited to the art form of opera. And now that contemporary composers – when coming from a modernist aesthetic position – increasinlgy get more traditional, the heritage of deplorable asthetics of half a century old may form an emotional hindrance to find truly operatic music. And then, the quasi-sensationalism of the plot has to compensate for the lack of musical expression.

    A truly daring new opera would use a most simple and psycholgically accessible plot with oldfashioned opera music which then could occupy all the space in the production. There are so many excellent examples: Bartok, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Britten, Hindemith, Debussy, Strauss… all very different but all very effective. Why don’t sonicists like Benjamin just plunge into a past which has been so much more interesting than a more recent, bland past, and learn some truly musical craft?

    • Still, it’s terribly sad to see a cold response after years of effort. The only consolation is that it has not gone unnoticed – some people have seen it.

      • I would say that the overall critical reception has been as warm as you are likely to see from the notoriously cold-blooded opera critic fraternity. What NL has done here is select the more negative bits of a number of generally positive (4 star) reviews and then, as usual, put his own spin on it with a misleading headline (surprise surprise). And he’s completely omitted George Hall’s 5 star review in The Stage, no doubt because it lacks any negativity for him to wrench from its context and highlight.

  • The Telegraph also says “this new opera … looks set to prove another international success on the level of their previous collaborations”

  • I obviously can’t comment on an opera I haven’t seen but perhaps can respond to a general comment by Rupert Christiansen. Surely the point about opera is not surprise but repeatability; would you want to see it next month, next year? This changes. Many operas I used to like a lot (eg Magic Flute, Carmen) I now want to see at ever increasing intervals.

  • Anyone who tries to assess critical reaction should be familiar with Nicolas Slonimsky’s “Lexicon of Musical Invective” – the definitive collection of first performance reviews of great masterpieces that were laughably wrong.

    • I have wondered whether we need an inverse of the book, perhaps a Lexicon of Musical Acclaim, for all the times critics have praised now-forgotten, even wretched, works as masterpieces.

      • That is a very good idea…. maybe slightly less amusing to read.

        The timid response of critics to new pieces is mainly due to two anxieties: a) to be seen as conservative if one does not strongly approve of the piece’s groundbreaking qualities; b) the fear of appearing in the new edition of Slonimsky’s hilarious book and being exposed for all posterity as a crank.

        • If I were a music critic I would aim for immortality…by appearing in the Lexicon of Musical Invective. Who would remember me otherwise.

  • Dear Norman, I cannot understand how or why you have in good conscience used a title like this for your post on George Benjamin’s new opera. Were you there on opening night? I was there! After being a part of over 80 world premieres, I can tell you, the audience reception was the opposite of cool. It had a delicious temperature! And regarding your press selections, the opera has garnered mostly 4 star reviews save for a few. The New York Times review from Anthony Tommassini was extraordinary! Of course I am personally biased, as I have been a part of this piece and other works of George Benjamin for many years, but it is not my personal feeling about this piece which prompts me to write this note to your website. It is that you have put a negative spin, unfairly, on a piece which deservedly received positive attention from most of the press and from the audience. And, in the bigger picture, you have put a negative light onto something which should be celebrated, no matter what. Composers need to be supported. Their work is courageous and they are isolated for years of their lives, writing MUSIC. Composers are rarely understood or celebrated. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they are less successful but they have, as another composer I admire very much has said, “put their DNA on a slide, under a microscope” and have dared to allow it to be seen, heard, and judged. They are not remaining anonymous, like much of the cowardly commentary we see on internet sites. The night after opening, for you to write a title like this to a post…well, I find it an unnecessarily negative. More love please, less violence.

    (Dear Norman, I would appreciate if you would give this email a place of prominence…not just in the comments section, to help undo a bit of the negative effects of yesterday’s post. Many thanks, Barbara)

    • Well said. The audience went mad for it. In scene 7 I could still hear the delighted gasps of astonishment with an ear-hole full of blood and a bag over my head.

      • It is true the audience received it warmly on the first night – but the audience of the first night is usually a very peculiar group of supporters and biased people. This piece will surely not go into repertoire – after playing in the halls it was commissioned by it will disappear soon. For my part, it felt like one very monotonous, harmonically very static and vocally very poorly written piece which resembled more a long concert than an opera. With most of the vocal lines turning around thirds (going up and back or reverse), staying in a very narrow field, hardly every going out of an interval of a tritone within a phrase it just didn’t explore much melodic diversity. The plot, too, could have been more contemporary (in reference to actual discrimination of homosexuals out there in the world – namely, South of Russia, Syria, some Arabic states or even here in Europe) but stayed distanced throughout. Instead, it was a historical play, with modern suits, but without any edge or surprise. The staging didn’t add much controversy but pictured only what was already clear. Most interesting and powerful moments happened off stage. All in all it was too subtle and undramatic – even less dramatic than Written on Skin which at least had some interesting orchestral writing and a tighter, more compact and tense playwriting. However, the cast was great, all singers, particularly you (Barbara Hannigan), Stephane Degout, Gyula Orendt, Peter Hoare did a fantastic job putting this piece to life. The orchestra and George Benjamin as a conductor worked very well together as well, supporting all little nuances. It is only a pity that such a small piece which could work as a chamber opera with 4 singers and a small instrumental ensemble on an off theatre would receive a commission for the large stage and take up so many funds which could be put to better use commissioning at least 6-10 operas. I do really hope this is NOT the future of the opera (business). Please do commission operas and to unexperienced composers, too, so they may develop. But take it to the young generation who might still bring a change, stop commissioning people who are established but do not know how to write for the big stage. After three operas with a similar conservative touch, using well-known but quite irrelevant topics George Benjamin is really not up for surprises any more. Starting late as a dramatic composer he will hardly give a new input for the future of opera – using all the same orchestral and singing possibilities which could have been used 200 years ago. Where is the hot spice and new music drama? Investments should be made into breeding a young generation of excited composers – they need to develop much more than the established guys – in that sense the Linbury Studio is doing a much better job with its commissions than the large hall. Still, it is nice to see a new work on of the really big opera stages – which are usually just all too filled with the same repertoire, Tosca, Carmen, Aida from Vienna to London to Paris to Sydney to New York – what is the point of that? There is a lack of character and profile within these opera houses. Forget the repertoire, it’s for museums – we want new hot stuff which connects to our present time, with new words, new sounds and contemporary musicians. For that reason, I am very happy to see at least some new music and new drama in a major opera house as we have experienced last Thursday at Covent Garden.

  • Barbara Hannigan is right, but too polite. This is either shoddy or mendacious music journalism. I was at the opening night. The audience reaction was about as positive as one might hope to expect to a new work that is dark, and darkly elusive, and not without its challenges. I have read many reviews subsequently, including most of those referred to by Lebrecht. He has simply not represented those reviews accurately or fairly, instead (more often than not) culling more negative comments from what are generally overwhelmingly positive reviews. What might motivate such a strategy escapes me. I am sorry that he finds it difficult to summon up enthusiasm for a composer of such obvious quality. But I would have thought a position of respect, or at the very least circumspection, might be preferable for someone in his position.

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