George Benjamin - Written on Skin

Opéra Comique, Paris, Monday November 18 2013

Conductor: George Benjamin. Production: Katie Mitchell. Sets and costumes: Vicki Mortimer. Lighting: Jon Clark. The Protector: Christopher Purves. Agnès: Barbara Hannigan. Angel 1 - The Boy: Iestyn Davies. Angel 2 – Marie: Victoria Simmonds. Angel 3 – John: Allan Clayton. Angels, Archivists: David Alexander, Laura Harling, Peter Hobday, Sarah Northgraves. Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France.

NOTE: This will be a longish post, but only because, for a new work of this importance I think it's useful to offer a summary of the plot and give some background information. My report of the performance I attended is at the beginning; background notes and plot are at the end, for those interested.

George Benjamin
George Benjamin's Written on Skin was a huge hit when it premiered in Aix last year and has continued to reap praise, with few dissenting voices, as it has toured, so of course I was glad to see for myself at the Salle Favart this season.

As usual, summing the experience of a new work up after a single performance is hard, in particular because it's obviously hard to put down in writing what a composer's music sounds like. Critics have referred to both Pelléas and Wozzeck. There's perhaps some of the former in the overall, oppressive atmosphere of the story; but there's more of the latter in the dramatic themes and score.

The Jewish Chronicle had a fair stab, saying the music is “at once exquisite, threatening, melodic and translucent". As I don't have an editor breathing down my neck, I can add to that. The score is rich and complex yet detailed, subtle and legible, sometimes powerfully dramatic, with ripe, raw brass sounds, sometimes lyrical, and sometimes downright ethereal: there's a glass harmonica in the pit, for example, and a harp. The paper added: "Better still, the match of music and libretto [...] is not merely seamless but organic.” Exactly: I thought of Händel matching sound to words. The work is short (90 minutes) but intense to the point of harrowing: the audience, themselves panting at the end, feel sorry for the singers, who must be drained and exhausted. So the overall experience of music + theatre brought Elektra to my mind as I left, but I suppose I could equally have thought of Wozzeck.

Anyway, the CDs are now out and a DVD is on the way, and I should think anyone seriously interested in opera will buy one or the other. (Here's a link to the ROH's trailer).

The cast was faultless, so much so it's hard to know what to say. Iestyn Davies had a great deal more oomph than I expected (perhaps because a friend had written: "He sings beautifully but you always feel he's going to sing Evensong at you"), looked as British as HP Sauce and had a wonderfully wry way with his eyes. Barbara Hannigan literally threw herself into the part (perhaps I should say was literally thrown about, like a rag doll, while singing it) in the most physical way. That was less unexpected, as I'd already seen her somehow singing Lulu on points in Brussels, apparently to no ill effect. Benjamin's score is as taxing as Berg's; Hannigan's mastery of/in it was simply astounding.

Librettist Martin Crimp
Christopher Purves started the evening coughing discreetly into his hand, but when he occasionally sang with a frog in his throat, or his voice croaked in very quiet passages, it only made his characterisation that much more convincing, and when his contained menace broke out into violence there was no doubting he could still command a full, rich, resounding voice. His diction, at all times, was even clearer than the others', though on that score, Benjamin's score is, at all times, sensitive.

Victoria Simmonds was good. Allan Clayton was excellent - I wonder if he might be a potential Janacek tenor?

The staging dealt well with the "time travel" aspects of the libretto, setting the action in a dusty two-storey house of indeterminate date with, to the left, a cloakroom and, upstairs, a kind of laboratory or workshop for the preservation of manuscripts; in the middle, a kitchen or living room or bedroom, depending; and to the right, a forest growing through the broken parquet and the ceiling, held up by modern steel props. Angels and archivists (when not archiving in the upstairs workshop) in Uniqlo-plain, dark, contemporary clothes helped the singers in and out of their costumes or led them round the sets. And the "medieval" characters blinked and frowned at the bright, electric lights that "sprang" on to highlight where the action was taking place. The acting, sometimes vicious and/or sexually violent, i.e. seriously risky, was perfect. The orchestra, under the composer, was on excellent form. The (choc-a-bloc) house, at the end, erupted. And people will tell you opera audiences are all fainthearted conservatives and opera is dead.

The coughing, however, from the other side of the pit, was dreadful. It must be the same all over Europe at the moment - a famous diva I occasionally get sloshed with over kebabs was complaining only the other day about the racket she had to sing through in Madrid...


I have selected extracts from background information published in English on the Opéra Comique's website:

The libretto draws its subject from a Provençal medieval legend that became a literary motif: the eaten heart [...] Written on Skin can be likened to an archaeological gesture which consists in removing the asphalt of our streets in order to revive the feudal world of large estates and lords haunted by their salvation and the survival of their lineage and renown. One of these great landowners is the first protagonist in the opera, the Protector. [...]

In that world, troubadours, scholars and illuminators shape medieval history [...] The second protagonist in the opera, a young illuminator called the Boy, belongs to this caste of artists who master the techniques and issues of representation. Since these artists always work in accordance with the will of God, [...] they share certain attributes with the angels, the ministers of Heaven. In the opera, the Boy can see into the future: the urban realities whose strata will cover his story and the Protector’s. [...]

Martin Crimp relied on a passage by German philosopher Walter Benjamin from his Theses on the Philosophy of History: “There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. It depicts an angel [...] His eyes are staring, his mouth is open and his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where we see a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that unceasingly heaps ruins upon ruins and flings them at his feet. He would like to stay, awaken the dead and reassemble what has been shattered. But a storm is blowing from paradise which has been caught in his wings, and it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly drives him into the future to which he turns his back, while the heaps of ruins before him pile up to the sky. This storm is what we call progress.”

Written on Skin is suggestive of parchment – animal skin that preceded paper in the West and resulted in the development of written literature and illustration thanks to its smoothness and strength. By making the original troubadour an illuminator, George Benjamin and Martin Crimp endowed the Boy with a crucial part: that of bringing to light, both literally and figuratively. [...] 

The character who undergoes the deepest transformation is the wife, who is metamorphosed from object into subject. Another, more real story is written on skin. [...] Agnès embodies access to the status of individual, one of the great advances of the Middle Ages, which pervaded society and the arts. But at the core of the work, her conquest of carnal pleasure resonates more widely with the modern world in which the evolution of women’s status turns out to be discordant and uneven. 


This neat summary of the plot is from The Guardian:

A rich, powerful land owner, called the Protector in Crimp's libretto, commissions an artist, the Boy, to celebrate his life and the achievements of his family in an extravagant illuminated book. As the Boy painstakingly creates his manuscript, he attracts the attentions of the Protector's much younger wife, Agnès. His imagery empowers her, and she begins to assert her independence as a woman, rejecting her role as the childish property of her husband, to the Protector's angry dismay. So, he brutally kills the Boy, and forces Agnès to eat the heart; she then jumps to her death from a balcony before he can kill her, too.

Crimp's finely chiselled text gives the story a contemporary perspective by having three characters he calls Angels bring the medieval figures back to life and reflect on what happens, and by having the protagonists, especially the Boy, sing about themselves and their actions in the third person.


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