15 Jan 2017

Written on Skin: Royal Opera House

800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.

Under the neon-glare of laboratory strip-lights, the scientists and literary archeologists rout through the relics, scrape away palimpsests, shatter the printing presses, and uncover a shocking tale of violence, sex, suicide and cannibalism. ‘Strip the cities of brick,’ they cry; ‘Cancel all flights from the international airport.’ Yet, despite its ‘distance’ - both historical and aesthetic - this disturbing juxtaposition of innocence and monstrosity unsettles and seeps into our modern consciousness, like ink staining parchment.

Crimp’s spare, harrowing, unsettling libretto - replete with deliberate artifice - adapts a medieval Occitan legend about the Catalan troubadour Guillem de Cabestany, a tale previously treated by such diverse authors as Boccaccio and Ezra Pound. Cabestany was the lover of the wife of Raimon of Castell Rosselló; when their adulterous treachery was discovered, Cabestany was murdered and his heart was cooked and fed to his beloved Seremonda. On learning of the derivation of her feast, she threw herself from the window to her death.

In Crimp’s hands, the troubadour is transformed into an illustrator. The Protector considers his obedient, illiterate wife to be his ‘property’, but the Boy’s words, like magic, offer her a personal narrative and a voice of her own. Psychological vivified and sensuously ignited, she asks the Boy to supplement his two-dimensional drawings with the invention of a ‘real woman’. He obliges and the ensuing erotic tumult races unrestrainedly and unstoppable towards tragedy.

Ironically, while the words and images which are etched by the Boy onto vellum and into Agnès’ spirit are indelible, and their effects irrevocable and permanent, all else in Benjamin’s and Crimp’s shifting world is permeable and fluid - like ink which never dries. Time and space ebb and flow: the Boy has a vision of the future, in which ‘this wood and this light’ will be ‘cut through by eight lanes of poured concrete’. The archivists become Angels as the opera fuses modern and medieval, sacred and secular; interior and external worlds amalgamate - literally, as a forest springs up within the Protector’s medieval hall. Crimp’s mannered elegance sits alongside mundane pragmatism - reference to car parks, shopping malls puncture the poetic conceits.

Similarly, narrative leaks into the dramatic. Characters serve as third-person commentators - ‘said the Boy’ - or explain their actions, The Boy takes from his satchel an illuminated page.So compelling is the story that the archival researchers resurrect that they are sucked into its unfolding events, finding themselves serving as supernumeraries, rearranging or removing props, or finding a costume.


Vicki Mortimer’s two-tiered set compartmentalises various rooms and time zones, but these periods and locations oscillate with quasi-hallucinatory equivocation; they converge but never quite coalesce. Jon Clark’s vivid lighting juxtaposes the earthiness of the medieval world - all warm ochres and browns - against the monochrome coolness of the present.

Mortimer and director Katie Mitchell offer many striking images: not least, Agnès’ slow ascent of the white stairwell in the opera’s closing moments is impressed in my mind. There is a lot of personnel movement - or perhaps one should say ritualised slow motion; and the purpose of the stage business within and betwixt the compartmentalised chambers is not always clear, and can be distracting. It is therefore sometimes hard work to connect the musical discourse to the theatrical niceties.

Composer George Benjamin conducts this London revival. The words most commonly used to describe Benjamin’s music include ‘meticulous’, ‘fastidious’, ‘exquisite’, but all sound far too precious and passionless for a score which has sensuousness at its core. Benjamin has given us a vibrant, glowing musical illumination, albeit one undercut by dark undertones: an aural image which gleams with the lucidity and brightness of a medieval Book of Hours, and as dense a coloristic canvas as an Impressionist masterpiece. Even more impressively and wondrously, the details cohere to form a grand dramatic sweep.

Not surprisingly, Benjamin’s conducting meets the requirements for both technical precision and expressive spontaneity. The score abounds with complex polyrhythmic interplay, yet despite the strict rein that is needed to coordinate such complexities, Benjamin still managed to create an impression of an impulsive sonic response to, and commentary on, the unfolding story. The deliberate artifices of the libretto never weaken the ever-mounting tension which, like an insidious inflammable liquid, seeps into the dramatic canvass until a conflagration is inevitable.

6358 IESTYN DAVIES AS THE BOY c ROH. PHOTO STEPHEN CUMMISKEY.jpg Iestyn Davies (The Boy). Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

Delicacy and tempestuousness are juxtaposed. The brass chords of the opening bars cast a prophetic look at the drama’s conclusion, and though the soloists’ melodies - lyrical, naturalistic settings of the English text - are sensitively supported by carefully crafted instrumental groupings (and bass viol, verrophone and steel drums make their mark) the climactic moments appropriately unleash the full force of the ensemble. There is ‘poetry’ in Benjamin’s harmonic and orchestral medium: he is profoundly concerned with the essential implications and inferences of the harmonic and timbral qualities of his music in terms of their expressive, dramatic, ethical, and communicative meaning and effect.

6181 CHRISTOPHER PURVES AS THE PROTECTOR, IESTYN DAVIES AS THE BOY, BARBARA HANNIGAN AS AGNES c ROH. PHOTO STEPHEN CUMMISKEY.jpg Christopher Purves (Protector), Iestyn Davies (The Boy), Barbara Hannigan (Agnès). Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

What I found most striking and stirring was that while Benjamin’s music - utterly absorbing and strangely disorientating - seldom possesses a strong pulse there is undoubtedly unerring forward momentum: towards an unstoppable tragedy but also lulling the listener towards catharsis. I felt as if I were floating between worlds, though the natural speech rhythms of the vocal lines provide some sort of anchor.

The cast of five included several of the opera’s role-creators. Christopher Purves was a startlingly compelling Protector, by turns aggressively belligerent and bunglingly inept; both mellifluous of voice and daringly forthright as the role lurched towards the upper reaches of the baritonal head-voice. Purves’ diction was superb: he blustered with bold machismo and blundered with anguished disquiet. He created a figure who was absolutely terrifying in both his lack of self-awareness and his compensatory vindictiveness.

Barbara Hannigan was wayward and headstrong as Agnès. The luminosity of her soprano implied both naivety and nascent passion; her vocal line conveyed and impaled emotion. Hannigan’s impassioned commitment to the final scenes was breath-taking. Informed of her cannibalistic indulgence, she declared with triumphant vigour and ascent: ‘Nothing I ever eat, nothing I drink, will ever take the taste of that boy's heart out of this body.’ But, troublingly, the listener was simultaneously assaulted by the gastric cogitations of the orchestra - a panoply of sliding, burbling digestive onomatopoeia.

6472m MARK PADMORE AS JOHN, VICTORIA SIMMONDS AS MARIE, IESTYN DAVIES AS THE BOY c ROH. PHOTO STEPHEN CUMMISKEY.jpg Mark Padmore, Victoria Simmonds and Iestyn Davies. Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

With Victoria Simmonds and Mark Padmore taking the roles of the Angel 2/Marie and Angel 3/John respectively, the vocal feast was similarly rich. But, it was Iestyn Davies, who sang the role of the Angel/Boy in Munich in 2013, who brought an utterly winning vocal contrariness to this production. It is hard to imagine a more perfect fit of voice and role. Davies’ pure tone suggests a figure who is untouchable and celestial but, paradoxically, the beauty of his voice and the directness of its communication are bewitchingly erotic. There was a magical glow to the duets between Agnès and the Boy, which was utterly compelling.

When Agnès has jumped to her death, the Angel - the murdered Boy - explains that he has transfixed her image in an eternal illumination. We, too, are left with a timeless message, or question. Since its premiere at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012, Written on Skin has travelled to London, Amsterdam, Toulouse, Munich, Vienna and New York , accumulating five-star reviews along the way, and working its way unchallenged into the modern operatic canon.

Written on Skin might have been named Etched in Blood; it is chillingly refined and brutal. It carves its way disturbingly into one’s mind and memory, and is not easily - or willingly - eradicated.

Claire Seymour

George Benjamin: Written on Skin
Martin Crimp (librettist)

The Protector - Christopher Purves, Agnès - Barbara Hannigan, Angel 1/The Boy - Iestyn Davies, Angel 2/Marie - Victoria Simmonds, Angel 3/John - Mark Padmore; Director - Katie Mitchell, Conductor - George Benjamin, Associate director - Dan Ayling, Designer - Vicki Mortimer, Lighting designer - Jon Clark, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London