When his first opera Into the Little Hill was premiered in Paris in 2006, George Benjamin was already 46. His chamber-scale piece to a libretto by Martin Crimp on the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin won an immediate success and was followed by Written on Skin, a much larger score again to a text by Crimp unveiled at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012, and similarly widely taken up internationally.
It is a mark of the keen expectation involved in this latest collaboration between playwright and composer – which takes as its subject the troubled reign and violent death of Edward II, and like the original production of Written on Skin is designed by Vicki Mortimer and directed by Katie Mitchell – that the piece has been co-commissioned and co-produced by no fewer than seven major opera companies in Europe and America: George Benjamin is arguably the UK’s most internationally celebrated opera composer since Benjamin Britten.
Although Marlowe’s play was in Crimp’s mind when he began to create his operatic text, the result is an independent drama that Mortimer’s smart and fluent designs, based around an adaptable unit set, place visually in the here-and-now.
While there’s no disguising that the central character is the English monarch forced to abdicate and then murdered in 1327, he is referred to only as the King (a finely detailed performance from Stephane Degout), while his son and successor Edward III is initially the Boy and later the Young King (sympathetically realised by Samuel Boden). Most of the other historical figures – Edward’s wife Isabel (sung with immaculate focus by Barbara Hannigan), his disloyal, authoritarian henchman Mortimer (convincingly repellent in Peter Hoare’s interpretation), and his lover Gaveston (a subtly ambivalent portrayal from Gyula Orendt), retain theirs. Meanwhile, in a silent, unnamed part as Edward’s daughter – referred to as Young Girl – Ocean Barrington-Cook retains a watchful and increasingly compelling presence.
The focus of Crimp’s resonant libretto is the collision between love and power, articulated in Mortimer’s anger at Edward’s relationship with Gaveston, which causes him to set in motion the king’s removal; in Katie Mitchell’s disciplined staging not only do we see Edward and Gaveston destroyed, but also how Edward’s children in turn learn lessons in violence.
Crimp knows how to leave room for music to amplify his points – which Benjamin’s fascinating score does with boundless technical skill and unceasing eloquence. The composer conducts an outstanding performance.