Heroic Lessons In Love and Violence at Liceu

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Composer George Benjamin affirmed that the performances in Barcelona of Lessons in Love and Violence were a moving and “heroic” act. This was during the press conference for the presentation of the artists which he attended via video call.

It was certainly the case. With half of Europe having their theatres closed, facing the Spanish première of such a difficult piece was quite a challenge, which Liceu undeniable overcame. It is worth remembering that Liceu had already presented earlier operas by the composer – Into the Little Hill and Write on Skin – in previous seasons.

Opera Online already reviewed the very première of this piece in May 2018 at Covent Garden in London as well as the later performances in Lyon. Hence why this review will not focus on the piece’s agile structure, the sources of the magnificent, precise, intense and sharp as a knife text by Martin Crimp, or the high quality of the stage direction by Katie Mitchell, since this has been already well addressed in the above mentioned reviews from London and Lyon. Instead, the emphasis in this text will be put on the opening night at Liceu in Barcelona, one of seven theatres participating in this production.


Lessons in Love and Violence © Antoni Bofill


Lessons in Love and Violence © Antoni Bofill

For Lessons in Love and Violence, Benjamin has created a lovely dark music that fits in and explains the dark tragedy of the story line. He does this reinforcing the lower register instruments in the orchestra, particularly on the woodwind and brass sections, as well as by providing a spectacular percussion range in four groups, including various rare operatic orchestral instruments such as the cimbalom and diverse African drums. Such abundance in the percussion and brass sections meant that, in order to meet the safety distancing rules around the current epidemic situation, the orchestra overflew from the pit and occupied the first four rows in the stalls.

Josep Pons, principal conductor at Liceu, was in charge of the musical direction. Pons knows Benjamin’s work in depth as it was him who, thirty years ago whilst being at the head of a specialised contemporary orchestra (nowadays disappeared), realised the value of George Benjamin, then very young, and programmed his works in Spain for the first time.

Josep Pons managed to obtain the characteristic orchestral sound of recent pieces by the British composer, a sound reminiscent of Britten and Messiaen, an ‘accessible’ atonality that pays attention to resonances and sound affinities and doesn’t reject the comfortable intervallic distances of thirds and fifths from traditional Western harmony. The rhythmic complexity of Benjamin’s writing was well signalled by Pons and well executed by the orchestra. Despite the instrumental diversity, a good balance was achieved in the complex and original interplay of timbres proposed by the composer, which enrich the piece with a great unfolding of instrumental colours.

Benjamin takes particular care of the vocal writing and his phrasing stems directly from the prosody of the English language. In his operas the text is always clear. This aspect was also very well resolved throughout the performance. Although at the beginning the orchestra dominated, disoriented in the new space, a good balance between the orchestral sound and the voices was promptly achieved.


Lessons in Love and Violence © Antoni Bofill

The artistic team was of top quality and largely similar to that of the première at Covent Garden in May 2018. Stéphane Degout as king, Peter Hoare as the intriguing Mortimer and Samuel Boden as the son of the king, had all been part of that original cast. Georgia Jarman, who took part in the performances in Hamburg and Lyon, is a specialist in Benjamin and sang the role of the queen. Daniel Okulitch performed the roles of Gaveston and the Stranger, which is no other than death visiting the King under the appearance of Gaveston.

Lessons in Love and Violence doesn’t lend itself to solo diva spirits, but rather demands great team work. In this sense, the opening night at Liceu was exemplary as everyone was at all times focussed and committed to both the musical as well as the stage direction in order to obtain a great artistic result.

The audience’s response to Liceu’s proposal was ideal. The seating was certainly highly restricted, but it was completely sold out and the final applause was long and intense. The most overwhelming acclaim went clearly to maestro Pons and the orchestra. They fully deserved it given their great work, but this was also the crowd’s symbolic way of applauding Liceu for their initiative. 

Xavier Pujol
Barcelona, 26th February 2021

Lessons in Love and Violence by George Benjamin with texts by Martin Crimp. Stéphane Degout, baritone. Daniel Okulitch, baritone. Georgia Jarman, soprano. Peter Hoare, tenor. Samuel Boden, tenor. Isabella Gaudí, soprano. Gemma Coma-Alabert, soprano. Toni Marsol, baritone. Ocean Barrington-Cook, silent character. Orchestra of Gran Teatre del Liceu. Josep Pons, conductor. Katie Mitchell, stage direction. Dan Ayling, re-staging. Vicky Mortimer, scenography and constumes. Co-production by Gran Teatre del Liceu, Teatro Real Madrid, ROH, Dutch National Opera (Amsterdam), Staatsoper Hamburg, Opéra de Lyon, Lyric Opera of Chicago. Gran Teatre del Liceu.

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