George Benjamin: Written on Skin
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. 13 January 2017
Since it premiered in 2012, Written on Skin, George Benjamin’s first full-length opera (to a text by Martin Creed), has been hailed as one of the masterpieces of the contemporary opera world, bringing such accolades as “the work of a genius unleashed”. This 90 minute work was composed over two years of concentration and virtual isolation, while Benjamin eschewed all other composition, teaching, and conducting work. It was commissioned by the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, along with the Royal Opera House and opera houses in Amsterdam, Toulouse, and Florence. A request to base the opera on something related to the Occitan area of Provence led to a mediaeval tale about a troubadour employed by a local lord who has a love affair with the lord’s wife. When he finds out, the lord kills the troubadour, cooks his heart and feeds it to his wife. When she finds out what she has eaten, she swears to never eat or drink again to keep her lover’s taste in her mouth. She avoids the lord’s anger and his sword by leaping from a window to her death.
George Benjamin and Martin Creed worked together from the very inception of the opera. Benjamin chose his singers before a single note was written, and delayed starting composition until Creed had delivered the entire text. They changed the troubadour musician into a manuscript illuminator, referred to in the opera as the Boy. He is invited by a despotic, bullying, self-aggrandizing, narcissistic, misogynist (and, yes, at one stage, what looked like a pussy-grabbing) landowner, known as the Protector, to celebrate his own life in an illuminated book. His enemies are to be depicted in Hell, and his own family in Paradise. It is to be written on skin (vellum = calfskin). There were several moments when it was helpful to remember that this was written well before current political events were even deemed remotely possible, let alone just about to actually happen. The Protector’s wife is Agnés, totally dominated by the Protector, who sees her as ‘his property’ and ‘blames her for everything’. As a woman, she has never been educated, and is unable to read. The opera opens with three Angels, who continue to provide commentary of the actions of the main protagonists. One of the Angels transforms into the Boy, while the two become Marie and John
This was the first revival of the Royal Opera House’s 2013 performance. Of the original cast, this revival included Christopher Purves as The Protector, Barbara Hannigan as Agnés, and Victoria Simmonds as Angel 2/Marie. They were joined by Iestyn Davies as Angel 1/The Boy and Mark Padmore as Angel 3/John. For many in the audience, and probably for most reviewers, this would have been their second or third time of seeing the opera. For me it was the first. I wish now that I had seen the premiere and last year’s concert performance in The Barbican, particularly the latter. Having now seen the full staging (by Vicki Mortimer) of Katie Mitchell’s production, it would have helped to have had the chance to have heard the music shorn of any of the additional complications of the very busy set, and also to have been able to see the orchestra and its glittering array of instruments, which include Japanese mokubios, Indian tablas, a Latin American güiro, a computer keyboard or typewriter, glass harmonica, viola da gamba, a pair of mandolins and a contra-bass clarinet.
The orchestra doesn’t always accompany the singers in the traditional sense. The music often acts as a background colour and commentary on the sung text. To liken it to film music might sound demeaning, but there is something similar in the compositional style, except that in Benjamin’s detailed score there is far more than is ever heard in film music. There are several moments of real orchestral drama, but only a few ffff climaxes. For much of the time the music is reflective and subdued, painting a kaleidoscope of etherial orchestral colours, often using single or paired instruments. Some of the most powerful orchestral moments come during the scene changes (the opera is in 15 scenes divided into a triptych of unequal parts). It continues for about 90 minutes, with just a short pause between the three parts.
The singers act as their own narrators, describing action in the third person, as well as their own dialogue. Their acting and singing is universally outstanding. Christopher Purves, Barbara Hannigan, and Iestyn Davies take total control of the stage, the action and the extraordinary range of their own voices. The frequently mould their voices into the orchestra’s timbre and texture.
The set is a complex series of spaces on two stories, with the action of the opera taking place on just one of the spaces, a mediaeval hall with an adjoining garden. To the left, and upstairs is a sparse modern laboratory, seemingly used by present day archivists (and Angels) in a slow motion piecing together of what could have been the illuminated manuscript that the Boy has prepared for the Protector. They double as very slick stage hands and dressers, but bring a distracting side-show to the action. Throughout the opera there was some activity going in these side-spaces. Minor adjustments to the set occurred between the three parts, but all within the same basic concept.
Martin Creed’s text is a complex piece of work, with references ranging from the mediaeval story to things like car parks. It may repay reading in the published libretto. A DVD of the original performance is also available for those able to catch the remaining performances of this revival during January. There are many other clips to be found on the internet, including interviews with George Benjamin. It is an extraordinary piece of work, that will repay repeated viewing.
Photos: ROH: Stephen Cummiskey