SkinGeorge Benjamin - Written on Skin

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, 2012 | George Benjamin, Katie Mitchell, Christopher Purves, Barbara Hannigan, Bejun Mehta, Rebecca Jo Loeb, Allan Clayton | ARTE Live Web, Internet streaming, Aix-en-Provence - 14 July 2012

Commissioned by the Aix-en Provence Festival to have a Provençal theme, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin takes an interesting approach to the task in his second opera. With a libretto written by Martin Crimp, Benjamin mixes classicism with the avant-garde to powerful effect in his 21st century perspective on a 12th century legend composed by the troubadour poet Guillaume de Cabestany. It’s not just in the unusual mix of musical instruments that have been used however - the orchestration coloured by as varied a range as a viola de gamba, mandolins and glass harmonica - or even the use of a countertenor in a modern opera, but it’s the necessity of viewing the past through the eye of the present, of breaking down myth into reality, that is evident throughout every element of the production. Viewed here via internet streaming during its world premiere run at Aix on 14th July 2012, Written on Skin is consequently an intense operatic experience.

The story itself seems to be a relatively minor one, but it does nonetheless make some interesting observations about the nature of self-deception, the exercise of power over others and the difficulty of coming to terms with an understanding of one’s true nature. The drama plays out principally between only three main characters - a man, a woman and a boy. The man, known as the Protector, is a landowner, a man “addicted to purity and violence”, proud of his achievements (”I own the fields, I own everyone in them”) who likewise regards his wife as part of his property. He engages the Boy, an artisan, to create an illuminated book for him to record his great achievements and to depict the glorious ascent to Paradise that awaits him. The woman, Agnès, however seeks something else in the Boy, is attracted to him and asks him to create “another woman” for her, one who can open the eyes of her husband to his failings. For the Protector, the book is to put a spin on his belief in himself as a great man, for Agnès, it’s an opportunity to reveal the real woman and her desires that are suppressed by the man. Vanitas vanitatem. The outcome is inevitably tragic.

What makes this simple story rather more interesting is in how it is viewed from a modern perspective. The story is narrated by three Angels - the Boy is also one of the Angels, the other two play the parts of Marie, the sister of Agnès and her husband - who seem to exist in a separate dimension, and along with other stagehands, they seem to be recreating the events, directing the actors into their places, viewing the sequence of events as they play out and commenting on them. All the characters recite their words as if reading them from a narrative text - Boy:”What do you want, says the Boy”, Agnès: “To see, says the woman”. Vicki Mortimer’s stage designs, the stage divided into discreet locations seem to emphasis these separations between the reality and the meta-reality, between the story and its creation, between action and commentary on it. Most of the drama takes place in a thin lower strip of the stage, wooden, brown coloured that becomes a room and a bedroom leading to an exterior or a staircase, while the “angels” and their assistants look on form a modern blue-lit side-room and upper level “back office”.

While you are made aware of the characters relating their own words, playing a role, recreating events, it in no way however takes away from the intensity with which the story is depicted through the singing, the performances and in the brooding, probing, revealing musical score - the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted here by Benjamin himself - and through Katie Mitchell’s stage direction. The strength and power of the voices, as well as their combination of soprano, baritone and countertenor, are well arranged to achieve the necessary impact, but the actual casting of Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves and Bejun Mehta is critical in the ringing clarity of tones and in performances that push the violent passions to their limits. “Shatter the printing press. Make each new book a precious object written on skin“. Can you exhume and invoke the passions of the past and bring them to back to life in a manner that makes them meaningful and immediate to a modern audience? With opera - and the richness of musical and theatrical resources that it places at the disposal of a composer with the necessary ability - apparently you can.

Written on Skin is currently available to view via internet streaming on the ARTE Live Web and on the Medici website. Some region restrictions may apply. The new work will also be able to be seen at the De Nederlandse opera in Amsterdam and at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden later this year.