April 29, 2020

A momentous occcasion: LESSONS IN LOVE AND VIOLENCE arrives at Lyric

Word travels fast in the opera world. Here’s a perfect example: eight years ago, composer George Benjamin and writer Martin Crimp collaborated on a brilliant new opera, Written on Skin. Major companies were soon producing it and clamoring to know what the duo’s next stage work would be. Thanks to a group of major opera companies joining together on a new co-commission, including Lyric, Benjamin and Crimp's Lessons in Love and Violence received its world premiere in May 2018. The extraordinary new work will have its eagerly awaited North American premiere at Lyric in the upcoming season.

The circumstances of this opera’s arrival on the international scene are unusual — not just because of the uniquely gifted artistic team behind it, but because of the way companies have come together to produce it. The world premiere, directed by the hugely acclaimed Katie Mitchell — first seen at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden — was a coproduction with no fewer than six other major companies: Lyric, the Dutch National Opera, the Hamburg State Opera, the Opéra de Lyon, Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu, and the Teatro Real Madrid.

Lessons in Love and Violence: Stéphane Degout/King and Gyula Orendt/Gaveston will recreate their roles at Lyric this fall.

Lyric’s general director Anthony Freud and music director Sir Andrew Davis (who will conduct Lessons at Lyric) are thrilled to be presenting the North American premiere of Lessons. After the triumph of Written on Skin, says Freud, “as soon as we learned George Benjamin was composing a new opera, we immediately expressed our interest in co-commissioning and co-producing it.” The collaboration among so many companies for a world premiere speaks volumes for the immense admiration Benjamin and Crimp have earned during their distinguished careers.

Lessons tells a powerful story, full of enormously complex emotions that create riveting drama. It’s based on a power struggle that pits the King (based on England’s Edward II) and his ill-fated lover Gaveston against the ambitious courtier Mortimer and the King’s wife, Isabel. Mortimer engineers the murder of Gaveston and the death of the King, but in the end, the lust for power rubs off on the King’s son: he overcomes Mortimer, rejects his own mother, and takes power himself.

A dramatic, intense, political thriller about power, the abuse of power, and teaching the next generation the worst possible lessons.

Anthony Freud

Freud calls the opera’s story “a dramatic, intense, political thriller about power, the abuse of power, and teaching the next generation the worst possible lessons.” Crimp has commented that also crucial to the opera is “desire, and desire contrasted with political responsibility. The King is a desiring person; what that means is he takes his eye off the ball politically and this leads to instability and chaos.”

The music is full of theatrical atmosphere and striking instrumentation. Sir Andrew Davis, who has known Sir George Benjamin over the course of the composer’s 40-year career, notes that “his music is brilliantly written. He writes for the orchestra with an extraordinary virtuosity and sense of color that is very appealing.”

Lessons in Love and Violence: The King (Stéphane Degout) has been stripped of his power in this taut 90-minute thriller.

An ensemble of superb singing actors will illuminate Lessons for the Lyric audience. Starring as the King is baritone Stéphane Degout, who in the nine years since his debut here in The Magic Flute has established himself as France’s foremost lyric baritone. As Isabel, Lyric will welcome American soprano Georgia Jarman (debut), whose radiant sound and enthralling stage presence have won great admiration in major houses throughout this country and Europe. American tenor William Burden, acclaimed in a vast repertoire that has included a great deal of contemporary opera (including Lyric’s world premiere of Bel Canto), will be the treacherous Mortimer. Portraying the charismatic, ill-fated Gaveston will be the young Hungarian-Romanian baritone Gyula Orendt (debut), who has rapidly risen to the top rank internationally.

Lessons in Love and Violence will be one of the most dazzling and talked-about events of the season. Make sure you’re there to share in the excitement!

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Photos: c. ROH. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey