“It’s nothing to do with loving a man, it’s love full stop that’s poison”. This is the opening line of Lessons in Love and Violence, a new opera by George Benjamin  with a libretto by experimental playwright Martin Crimp. The pair previously collaborated on Written on Skin, which is seen by some as a benchmark for contemporary classical music. Their latest work is a loose adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, remarkable for being an Elizabethan play with a romance between two men at its centre. As the opening line suggest, however, Crimp couldn’t care less about the King’s sexuality. His concern is that both homosexual and heterosexual love can lead to disastrous choices, especially for those in power.

This world premiere at the opulent Royal Opera House is a cause for true excitement, not least because Benjamin is here to conduct his own work and the visionary Katie Mitchell directs the piece. On the night it truly lived up to expectations. Benjamin’s score mixes the angular atonal music which has long been characteristic of contemporary classical with lyricism and accessible emotion. The music is permanently on edge, complimented by Mitchell’s taut direction which maintains a relentless pace.

While the opera is intellectually engaged and has innumerable lovely orchestral touches, there’s something rather chilly about this tale of political intrigue. The King (Stéphane Degout), his wife Isabel (Barbara Hannigan) and the King’s lover Gaveston (Gyula Orendt) reside in a stylish if somewhat soulless modern mansion. The action unfolds in a single room – the audience peers through each of the four walls in turn as the box set sickeningly rotates between each scene, leading to intense claustrophobia.

We’re introduced to the royal household as the King is castigated by his military adviser Mortimer (Peter Hoare) for spending too much time cavorting with Gaveston as his kingdom falls to ruin. Gaveston, none too pleased with all this, suggests the King banish Mortimer and strip him of his titles. The King foolishly agrees, inevitably leading to bloody civil war.

I’ve seen Edward II portrayed as a lovesick adolescent unfairly persecuted for his sexuality; Degout’s King follows his desires with a ruthless sense of entitlement. In Marlowe’s Edward II, and later Shakespeare’s Richard II, the focus is squarely on the King and his infighting nobles, while the larger population bears the brunt of these individuals’ actions somewhere offstage. Not so here. Mortimer soon pops up again with a band of witnesses who regale Isabel with their suffering. One of them (grittily sung by Jennifer France) devastatingly empties the ashes of her dead son over the queen’s sheets. He died in the King’s wars, only for the family’s land to be handed to Gaveston. The Queen just has the servants change the sheets.

We’re implicated too. “Do not come here to put a price on music”, Isabel warns the witnesses. The King later admits that he has let his people down while he listened to his “exquisite music”. A large fish tank is the most prominent feature of the set, but is drained once the King is overthrown. The point of all this? The King is like the fish in the tank – preoccupied by his own affairs and blind to the suffering in the world beyond. And the audience listening to our own “exquisite music” and enjoying a (dare we say it) slightly elitist and very expensive art form? We’re in our own fish tank too. As Benjamin’s music plays innumerable people are suffering in our own country and beyond.

Crimp has filled the opera with striking imagery and language, and treats us to a particularly horrible vision of death. Yet while Benjamin’s worried score swells and thunders, we remember that we don’t particularly care about any of these characters. The central players are not just flawed; they’re horrendous individuals that deserve all the terrible things that befall them. When the King finally realises the error of his ways, it’s too little too late. It’s hard to feel pity for a man wholly consumed by a relationship which (if Gaveston is to be believed) is borderline abusive.

This is undoubtedly a piece of incredible artistry. The fluid slow motion Mitchell brought to Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court returns here and works beautifully with the music. The musical textures are sometimes fascinating (I’ve never known harps to sound so ugly). The use of multi-roling also gives us much to ponder. Yet, though the vocals are all flawless and the performances sound (young tenor Samuel Boden gives a particularly astounding turn as the King’s son), it’s the intellectual concerns rather than the characters that stick in the mind.

Lessons in Love and Violence is playing at the Royal Opera House until 26 May 2018

Photo: Stephen Cummiskey