Barbara Hannigan as Isabel, Stéphane Degout as King and Gyula Orendt as Gaveston in Lessons in Love and Violence, The Royal Opera © 2018 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey

Following from George Benjamin and Martin Crimp’s marvelous production, Written on Skin – which was performed at the Royal Opera House in 2017 – their third opera, Lessons in Love and Violence carries the duo’s (composer and librettist) signature trademark: transcending compelling storytelling with exquisite sound worlds.

Working together, again, with director, Katie Mitchell and set designer, Vicki Mortimer Lessons in Love and Violence conveys a contemporary adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s harrowing play on the reign of Edward II. Written on Skin (see my 2017 review here) has a rich landowner who forces his wife to eat the heart of her secret lover without knowing it. Here the cruelty and abuse ensue when the King’s cold-blooded wife, Isabel (outstandingly performed by Barbara Hannigan) drops a priceless pearl in a glass of vinegar and dangles it, like a carrot, in front of a group of impoverished people.

Barbara Hannigan as Isabel, Stéphane Degout as King and Gyula Orendt as Gaveston in Lessons in Love and Violence, The Royal Opera © 2018 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey

Samuel Boden as Edward III, Ocean Barrington-Cook as the King’s daughter and Barbara Hannigan as Isabel in Lessons in Love and Violence, The Royal Opera © 2018 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey

The King (superbly sung by Stéphane Degout) has everything. He has an observant son who is appointed to succeed him (warmly performed by Samuel Boden) and a quietly mindful daughter (brave and perceptively played by Ocean Barrington-Cook). They are present throughout the seven scenes of the opera, and are compelled to witness brutal savagery in their very own living room.

The King also has an erotic relationship with his favourite, Gaveston. Gyula Orendt’s image of the King’s male lover is indeed menacing, but Orendt’s baritone voice is full of luster and sheen. One wonders if Benjamin and Crimp wrote Gaveston as one of the more interesting characters loaded with esoteric meaning.

Barbara Hannigan as Isabel, Stéphane Degout as King and Gyula Orendt as Gaveston in Lessons in Love and Violence, The Royal Opera © 2018 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey

Barbara Hannigan as Isabel, Stéphane Degout as King and Gyula Orendt as Gaveston in Lessons in Love and Violence, The Royal Opera © 2018 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey

Lastly, the King has a disloyal and unsavory henchman, Mortimer (craftily framed and pleasantly sung by Peter Hoare) who he decides to banish. But this doesn’t stop Mortimer from pursuing a clandestine relationship with the King’s wife or plotting to usurp him, take his power and execute Gaveston.

According to Mitchell, ‘there is optimism – for 10 seconds’ (see her interview with the Guardian here) yet the production is full of despair – not a shed of hope endures. There’s a magnetic pull in Mitchell’s production; a depth of the unknown that looms between these intriguing yet puzzling characters. In true Mitchell style, the slow-motion on stage adds a spiritual detail – a kind of meditative arrangement that fuses well with the opera’s story.

Barbara Hannigan as Isabel, Stéphane Degout as King and Gyula Orendt as Gaveston in Lessons in Love and Violence, The Royal Opera © 2018 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey

Samuel Boden as Edward III, Ocean Barrington-Cook as the King’s daughter, Stéphane Degout as King, Peter Hoare as Mortimer and  Barbara Hannigan as Isabel in Lessons in Love and Violence, The Royal Opera © 2018 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey

Vicki Mortimer’s modern-day set designs are scrumptious. She sets the entire work in the King’s large mansion that includes mute note-takers, all dressed in suits, and a large, eye-catching tropical fish tank. It caught my attention (last night at the opening), particularly when the fish began to swim super fast whenever the soloists sang high notes in extremely tense scenes. (I am sure the fishes felt Benjamin’s music and the ROH Orchestra through the vibrations in the water.)

The composer, Benjamin (who also conducts the opera) and the ROH Orchestra give a masterful performance. The percussion instruments, drums and atmospheric feel of Benjamin’s score is delicate and dark, just like its narrative. You never know which unusual instrument will come out next to play.

So who are the students of love and violence? Is it the sharp-eyed daughter who records the detailed planning of her father’s murderers? Is it Isabel’s questionable choice in men… or the King himself? Lessons in Love and Violence is an evaluation of the sacrifices its characters are willing to make for power in the shadow of violence; possibly, with the balm of love. This is just another splendid example of what new contemporary opera looks, feels and sounds like.

Lessons in Love and Violence is showing at the Royal Opera House until 26 May. Click here to go their website and purchase tickets here.

(I paid for my ticket to see this show.)