Despite what its own title suggests, Lessons in Love and Violence is not a work characterised by overwhelming passions. Finding yourself overcome by this studied consideration of its chosen topics would be like getting frenzied warmongering urges from looking at Botticelli’s spent Mars snoring alongside Venus.
Created by George Benjamin and Martin Crimp, this new opera is inspired by the rule of King Edward II, his troubled marriage, and his lover Piers Gaveston – a previous source of inspiration for Christopher Marlowe. Stretching to only 1 hour 40 min, and segmented into seven short acts, it’s a work that continuously keeps its audience at arm’s length. Snapshots of the King’s downfall are presented, dripping with underdeveloped hints at events happening outside the room, whilst the rooms themselves are filled with extraneous characters (normally some type of royal advisor in a business suit looking like they’re trying to look busy). Wheelie trolleys carrying the Crown Jewels get wheeled around. A lot.
The libretto, meanwhile, contains some magnificently odd lines – ones that would be remarkable even if this were an historic operatic work translated from another language. An ‘immaculate greyhound’ is proffered as a gift for the royal children at one point, and there’s a continual fascination with cats – including one called Felicity that gets its owner in trouble by whispering prophecies like the witches in Macbeth.
And yet. And yet, setting aside what appear on the surface to be its flaws, Katie Mitchell’s production does something fascinating. The fragmented format, the stilted dialogue, the unnatural movements of the characters (and indeed Benjamin’s pared-back score) all serve to create a modern-dress opera that skilfully mimics the fable, and even fairy tale, ways the stories of kings have traditionally been passed down. This is echoed in the programme notes, which refer simply to ‘the King’ in the same way a children’s storybook might. As the great unwashed, our interaction with royalty – imagined or real – is necessarily distant. The royal family, from Edward the Confessor to Princess Diana, is based largely on myth. Which is what makes The Crown so attractive as a television series: the fantasy that we could see beyond the facade, and into the private lives and loves of the royals.
Mitchell’s production has the cast move in exaggerated slo-mo (abit like kids pretending to walk on the moon). The effect is like watching an opera part-staged underwater. Like with the fish in the giant moveable tank that makes up part of Vicki Mortimer’s set, the audience peer at the royal family voyeuristically, imagining we know them intimately (because we know the names of their lovers and follow their scandals) but never really getting close.
Lessons in Love and Violence is on until 26 May at the Royal Opera House. Click here for more details.