10 Mar 2013
George Benjamin: Written on Skin
George Benjamin's Written on Skin sinks deeply into the psyche. A Protector wants brightly coloured images to display his power and wealth.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto was the composer’s ﬁfteenth opera, and the ninth to a libretto by Giovanni Faustini (1615-1651). First performed at the Teatro Sant’Apollinaire in Venice on 28th November 1651, the opera by might have been sub-titled ‘Gods Behaving Badly’, so debauched are the deities’ dalliances and deviations, so egotistical their deceptions.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
New from Oehms Classics, Walter Braunfels Orchestral Songs Vol 1. Luxury singers - Valentina Farcas, Klaus Florian Vogt and Michael Volle, with the Staatskapelle Weimar, conducted by Hansjörg Albrecht.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
George Benjamin's Written on Skin sinks deeply into the psyche. A Protector wants brightly coloured images to display his power and wealth.
He is a megalomaniac brute who thinks he can control everything in his domain from the fruit on his trees to his wife's "obedient body". The Boy dutifully creates exotic images of "azurite and gold" on precious parchment, meticulously executed in fine detail.
Medieval art wasn't representational. Stylized depictions were meant to suggest concepts, not literality. Medieval art and modern art have more in common than we realize! Uneducated as she is, The Woman intuits that art can take on meaning of its own. Images can lie, yet also reveal eternal truths.
This, no less, may be what Written on Skin is about, despite the sensational narrative. It operates on several levels at the same time. Ostensibly the action takes place in a medieval manor house. The Protector thinks wealth will buy him eternity. A thousand years later, the lands he knew have been obliterated by "Saturday car parks" and multi lane highways. Even the Occitan has been absorbed into France. In this exquisitely poetic libretto, by Martin Crimp, past and future are superimposed on each other, reinforcing the idea that worldly certainities are impermanent. Things change, but artistic vision is timeless.
This sense of duality operates throughout the opera. The Protector thinks he controls everything around him. The Boy thinks that being an aritst (and presumably a monk) protects him from earthly engagement. Both are trumped by The Woman who wants the Boy to paint a a ""real woman" with passions and eyes that "grow black with love". The boy can see the flecks of gold in her grey eyes, but his eyes, too, turn black. The Protector sees the painting and suspects. The Boy lies to protect the Woman, but she's having no more subterfuge. "I am Agnès" she cries, "I am not a child!"
Benjamin's Written on Skin is a departure from the 19th century idea of what opera should be. Despite the vaguely modern set, and very modern music, Written on Skin is much closer to the medieval approach to art. The narrative is oblique, despite the barbarism in the plot. We cannot, and should not, impose our own ideas on what the Middle Ages "should" be. "Wild primroses and the slow torture of prisoners" as the Boy sings in Act One. Crimp's text is exquisite allegory. Poetry doesn't operate like prose : overstated literalism would kill the gossamer magic.
Thus Benjamin's music operates as poetry, elusively, obliquely, but with enough passion to make the drama progress even when the words seem static. Illustrations in medieval manuscripts depict cataclysmic scenes as if they're suspended in time. Perhaps in a past incarnation Benjamin painted illuminations, where detail is captured with surreal intensity. Although Benjamin's writing makes a virtue of ambiguity, his orchestration is stunningly pure and clear textured. Low timbred strings like double basses, and a viola de gamba, high pitched keening woodwinds, a glass harmonica and an unusual percussion section which includes bongoes, a whip and Indian tablas. This replicates the clean outlines of medieval illumination : no muddy shadows, but intense, unnatural colour. The percussion also suggests the vigour and simplicity of early music. We can "hear" the musicians of the Occitan in the sophisticated Royal Opera House orchestra. It's curiously unsettling, but perfectly in keeping with the opera. Benjamin himself conducted.
As in their previous opera, Into the Little Hill, Benjamin and Crimp use indirect speech. Phrases like "Said the Boy", or "Said the Woman", are embedded to the text, intensitfying the unsettling sense of allegory. Yet character is very well defined. The Boy and the Woman are playing the roles the Protector wants them to enact. Their long, wailing lines with strange distorted syntax suggest the stylization of mystery plays, or even Greek chorus. Individual words are gloriously embroidered and illuminated, so they shine out from the background of undulating rhythms.
Bejun Mehta sings the Boy, his countertenor at once disturbing and beautiful. Barbara Hannigan sings the Woman, her part even more demanding because the personality develops so dramatically. It is she who is the catalyst for action. As the Woman sits bowed but uncowed, Hannigan's voice expresses the frustration the Woman cannot articulate. When she suddenly pounces on the Boy, Hannigan's voice explodes with sexual tension : animal-like but desperate. She throws herself at her husband who, despite his macho image, can't cope with her being anything other than "pure and clean". At this point, Benjamin's music for the singers changes. The Protector (Christopher Purves) now gets the long, wailing legato, where previously his music erupted in short, brutal staccato. Now Agnès has the short, punchy lines and spits them out with new-found assertiveness.
When the Protector kills the Boy, we can hear his compromised feelings in the music. Is the Protector himself secretly attracted to the Boy? Purves sings with a strange tenderness suggesting that the Protector might be killing his own desires. Agnès is fed a meat pie. "How does it taste"? sings her husband. She understands the horrible truth. "I shall never, never, never get the taste out of my mouth" she sings, her voice reaching heights of horror, her lines once again stretching out in extended wailing.
Mehta appears as an Angel, surrounded by other angels who had also appeared as Marie and John, Agnès's sister and brother-in-law, now supposedly dead. Victoria Simmonds and Alan Clayton sang the roles. The Boy is now a protagonist in a painting, no longer man but immortalized as a work of art. Just as he had paiinted a woman falling, suspended in mid-air, Hannigan mounts the stairs at the side of the stage and disappears, followed by a group of retainers moving in slow motion. We don't need to see her fall. We already know. "Art" has become "life".
I'm not generally a fan of Katie Mitchell, but her directing in this was very perceptive. She and her designers Vicki Mortimer and Jon Clark have made split level sets something of a signature, but in Written on Skin the style works well with the meaning. Most of the action takes place, claustrophobically, in one room. The other rooms on other levels show the world that goes on outside the trapped manse. Perhaps the Boy is a quintessential Artist, who consciously enters other worlds when he creates a work of art ? He leaves his street clothes behind when he enters the Protectors's realm. Later, he's dressed by attendants so he can become The Angel. Perhaps it's a subtle reference to the relationship between artist and patron, as well as to the relationship between art and artist.
Written on Skin is only Benjamin's second opera. His first, Into the Little Hill, also to texts by Martin Crimp. was a highly condensed chamber opera about which I've written extensively. Read more HERE. Since Benjamin was hitherto a miniaturist, who worked slowly because he took such meticulous care, I was concerned how he'd write a full scale opera for a large house like the Royal Opera House and the seven other houses in which it is touring, I needn't have worried. Working with Martin Crimp seems to have stimulated Benjamin to new levels of creativity. Although Written on Skin is stylized and abstract, it is inherently dramatic on its own terms. Dare I say it, but I do feel that this will be one of the defining operas of the early 21st century, because it is so visionary.
George Benjamin's Written on Skin will be broadcast (audio only) on BBC Radio 3 on 22nd June.