Seared On The Soul

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on March 18, 2013 at 8:26 am

Review – Written on Skin (Royal Opera House, Saturday 16 March 2013)

The Protector – Christopher Purves
Agnès – Barbara Hannigan
Angel 1/The Boy – Bejun Mehta
Angel 2/Marie – Victoria Simmonds
Angel 3/John – Allan Clayton

Director – Katie Mitchell
Designs – Vicki Mortimer
Lighting Design – Jon Clark

Composer/Conductor – George Benjamin

It isn’t very often that a performance is so brilliant – the music, the singing and the production – that it feels like a privilege to have been present.

Written On Skin by George Benjamin at the Royal Opera House felt precisely like that.

A privilege.

I am often wary of going to see new opera, as often they are a miserable marriage of indistinct music and uninspired production. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole was as brash musically as it was directorially and didn’t leave any impression except of being pummeled in your seat. ENO’s production of Gerald Barry’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was – and I probably think this is heresy to say so – the last new opera that I enjoyed. Barry has an interesting musical language and the production by Richard Jones and Ultz was both visually smart and emotionally intelligent.

Written on Skin, from the opening bars to the drop of the final curtain, was simply gripping and packed an emotional punch that has stayed with me and I would guess quite a few others who attended.

George Benjamin studied with Olivier Messiaen and his influence is keenly felt as the basis of the timbre and sound world that Benjamin creates. But at the same time, in the vocal writing is very much heard the influence of his other teacher, Alexander Goehr. At times there were distinct echoes of Arianna and Promised End, not only in the crafting of the vocal lines but also in the use of rhythm and the structure of the vocal lines.

But Benjamin’s musical language has taken these influences and melded them with his own style. Written on Skin represents a direct evolution from his chamber opera Into The Little Hill in the finesse of the vocal writing, the orchestration and the relationship between the two. And Benjamin is a skillful orchestrator, at times almost Dutilleaux-esque in his delicacy but capable being unleashed in a frenzy when required. Indeed those moments were all the more effective for the suddenness of their arrival and his ability to retreat from them as suddenly.

And the collage of sound created by Benjamin propels the music forward through every scene. From The Protector’s opening boastful scene, as lyrical as his wealth is bountiful to the acceleration from sensuality to sexual release in the music between Agnès and The Boy to the suffocating tension of the closing scene, Benjamin’s tight control of orchestral timbre and the mesh of rhythm is incredible.

And his sensitivity in terms of the vocal lines is brilliant. Each phrase is so carefully crafted to ensure that the words are clear with the alternation from almost Sprechstimme to lyricism seamlessly effective.

And if the music is remarkable then Benjamin was fortunate enough to be able to write for a highly distinguished cast of singers.

I cannot believe that this is Barbara Hannigan’s debut at Covent Garden. A leading interpreter of contemporary classical music – listen for example to her performance of De Vincent à Theo – it was a surprise to read that she had not performed on stage before. I hope that this is the start of a long and successful relationship with the company. As Agnès her bright soprano glided through the music effortlessly – not only rapt and ethereal but also dark and sonorous, capturing the wife’s need for freedom from a lifeless and loveless marriage. I don’t think it was love that she wanted – as witnessed by the brutal nature of her sexual clinch with The Boy – but rather escape. The scene with The Protector at the beginning of the Part Two when she attempted to seduce him demonstrated the wide range of colours that Hannigan could bring to her singing. From the almost ‘dead’ timbre as The Protector awakes to her increasing attempts to provoke a reaction from him was exhilarating. And her final scene was simply incredible.

And as The Protector, Christopher Purves was superb. I have already noted his vocal lyricism but it was also his ability to cast his voice from whisper to full-throated bellowing that was amazing and indeed it was with a whisper that he was most threatening. His diction was – as with the rest of the ensemble – crystal clear and again he was able to bend and colour his voice with great skill.

I haven’t seen Bejun Mehta sing live since Orlando at Covent Garden a good many years ago and I hope to rectify that when he tours shortly. Casting The Angel as a countertenor was inspired. The other-worldly, crystalline timbre of his voice was in sharp relief to the other main protagonists, creating a real sense of tension in the vocal colouring and timbre of the music.

And both Victoria Simmonds and Allan Clayton – the latter an excellent Castor in ENO’s production last year – were outstanding throughout.

The orchestra, conducted by George Benjamin himself, acquitted themselves with great distinction. Unusually for a new opera, there was no sense at any time that they were not completely and confidently immersed in the music written by Benjamin.

Martin Crimp’s libretto was eloquent with no word extraneous to plot or music. The language was taut yet had a musicality to it that rendered it perfectly to the music.

And if the standard of the music making was incredibly high, the direction and production itself was its match.

I admire Katie Mitchell’s work – her Jephtha is one of the strongest interpretations of any Handel that I have seen – but I was not convinced by her After Dido for ENO. That production was a distraction from the music and the twentieth century reinterpretation added a layer upon Purcell’s music that was not needed.

But for Written on Skin – again working with Vicki Mortimer – Mitchell developed the same idea but with greater clarity and narrative intent. The interaction between past and present was so fluidly done that it was never distracting except when it needed to be an intervention as part of the unfolding drama. The upper laboratory, for example – where the assistants unwrapped the items from the past for use in the story – was gracefully done and at no point was there any sense that something was being done for the sake of it. Considering the amount of activity and movement in the opera, there was an incredible sense of stillness and simplicity about the entire production. Again the closing scene’s use of slow motion – so often a miscalculation in stage productions – was achingly tense in its delivery.

It’s rare to leave a performance and not think of something that didn’t quite gel. But on this occasion, even sleeping on it, hasn’t changed my initial impression.

Benjamin’s Written on Skin and this production is one of the best productions – modern or otherwise – that I have seen in a long time. This production is part of Covent Garden’s ambitious plans to stage fifteen new works between now and 2020 and it bodes well for the future.

The music, the singing and the production came together like a veritable medieval (holy) trinity. Indeed I didn’t have the appetite to listen to anything upon leaving the performance. A rare occurrence for me.

It might now be sold out for the final two performances but BBC Four and Opus Arté were in on Saturday night to film it.

Written on Skin is not something to be missed.

  1. […] the recent and most excellent Written On Skin – possibly one of the most exciting and significant new operas for many years – has […]

  2. […] still have burned into my memory his incredible performance as The Protector in George Benjamin’s Written On Skin. Here his resonant and richly coloured bass effortlessly manages both the wide tessitura required […]

  3. […] the productions I saw this year it was a new opera that left the greatest mark. George Benjamin’s Written on Skin was a tour de force both musically and vocally. The cast, the brilliant Christopher Purves, the […]

  4. […] not to compare new works – even when they resemble each other so little. But compared to Written on Skin and even Anna Nicole, Anderson’s opera doesn’t ultimately leave me many questions except it is […]

  5. […] survive. Most recently we had Julian Anderson’s flawed The Thebans, and before that Benjamin’s Written on Skin and Anna Nicole by […]

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