This new, hotly anticipated 90-minute opera, from Written On Skin composer George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp, deals with the “lessons in love and violence” that young prince Edward III (Samuel Boden) has to learn from Mortimer (Peter Hoare), a political dissident, in order to become a puppet-king and overthrow his father, King Edward II (Stéphane Degout).
Based on Marlowe’s play, director Katie Mitchell puts the mediaeval action between the four small walls (and ceiling) of a luxuriously furnished room in a modern palace (designed by Vicki Mortimer), with the libretto never actually naming either prince or King, inviting a modern reading. Queen Isabel (Barbara Hannigan) responds to peasants’ cries for help by melting a priceless pearl in acid, calling to mind current inequalities between the richest and the poorest in Britain.
Musically, the score is dissonant but accessible. A defining feature is overlapping vocal lines, which require surtitle reading to clarify, with drawn-out and melismatic text setting. Boden’s counter-tenor (and tenor) is beautiful and chilling, a musical highlight. Hannigan has some of the most electrifying vocal lines, which show off her soaring soprano.
The homosexuality of the relationship between King Edward II and Gaveston (Gyula Orendt) is as prominent in Marlowe’s play, but far less important; Mortimer is banished only because of his insistence that all love is poisonous to the royal line, not because homosexuality is wrong. There is very little love in the opera as a whole, and very little violence too. But there are perhaps lessons.
The lessons continue until 26 May 2018. Tickets from £4.