Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Reviews

René Pape, Joseph Calleja, Kristine Opolais, Boito Mefistofele, Munich

Arrigo Boito Mefistofele was broadcast livestream from the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich last night. What a spectacle !

Calixto Bieito’s The Force of Destiny

The monochrome palette of Picasso’s Guernica and the mural’s anti-war images of suffering dominate Calixto Bieito’s new production of Verdi’s The Force of Destiny for English National Opera.

Morgen und Abend — World Premiere, Royal Opera House

The world premiere of Morgen und Abend by Georg Friedrich Haas at the Royal Opera House, London — so conceptually unique and so unusual that its originality will confound many.

Company XIV Combines Classic and Chic in an Exquisite Cinderella

Company XIV’s production of Cinderella is New York City theater at its finest. With a nod to the court of Louis the XIV and the grandiosity of Lully’s opera theater, Company XIV manages to preserve elements of the French Baroque while remaining totally innovative, and never—in fact, not once for the entire two and a half hour show—falls prey to the predictable. Not one detail is left to chance in this finely manicured yet earthily raw production of Cinderella.

Monteverdi by The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall

This was a concert where immense satisfaction was derived equally from the quality of musicianship displayed and the coherence and resourcefulness of the programme presented. In 1610, Claudio Monteverdi published his Vespro della Beata Vergine for soloists, chorus, and orchestra.

Félicien David: Songs for voice and piano

This well-packed disc is a delight and a revelation. Until now, even the most assiduous record collector had access to only a few of the nearly 100 songs published by Félicien David (1810-76), in recordings by such notable artists as Huguette Tourangeau, Ursula Mayer-Reinach, Udo Reinemann, and Joan Sutherland (the last-mentioned singing the duet “Les Hirondelles” with herself!).

Dialogues des Carmélites Revival at Dutch National Opera

If not timeless, Robert Carsen’s production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is highly age-resistant.

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari: Le donne curiose

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari was one of the Italian composers of the post-Puccini generation (which included Licinio Refice, Riccardo Zandonai, Umberto Giordano and Franco Leoni) who struggled to prolong the verismo tradition in the early years of the twentieth century.

Moby-Dick Surfaces in the City of Angels

On Saturday evening October 31, 2015, the Nantucket whaling ship Pequod journeyed to Los Angeles Opera and began its sixth voyage in the attempt to kill the elusive whale called Moby-Dick.

Great Scott at the Dallas Opera

Great Scott is a combination of a parody of bel canto opera and an operatic version of All About Eve. Beloved American diva Arden Scott (Joyce DiDonato), has discovered the score to a long-lost opera “Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompeii” and has become committed to getting the work revived as a vehicle for her. “Rosa Dolorosa” has grand musical moments and a hilariously absurd plot.

Schubert and Debussy at Wigmore Hall

The most recent instalment of the Wigmore Hall’s ambitious series, ‘Schubert: The Complete Songs’, was presented by soprano Lucy Crowe, pianist Malcolm Martineau and harpist Lucy Wakeford.

John Taverner: Missa Corona spinea

This new release of John Taverner’s virtuosic and florid Missa Corona spinea (produced by Gimell Records) comes two years after The Tallis Scholars’ critically esteemed recording of the composer’s Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, which topped the UK Specialist Classical Album Chart for 6 weeks, and with which the ensemble celebrated their 40th anniversary. The recording also includes Taverner’s two settings of Dum transisset Sabbatum.

A Bright and Accomplished Cenerentola at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago in a production new to this venue and one notable for several significant debuts along with roles taken by accomplished, familiar performers.

La Bohème, ENO

Back in 2000, Glyndebourne Touring Opera dragged Puccini’s sentimental tale of suffering bohemian artists into the ‘modern urban age’, when director David McVicar ditched the Parisian garrets and nineteenth-century frock coats in favour of a squalid bedsit in which Rodolfo and painter Marcello shared a line of cocaine under the grim glare of naked light bulbs and the clientele at Café Momus included a couple of gaudily attired transvestites.

Luigi Rossi: Orpheus

Just as Orpheus embarks on a quest for his beloved Eurydice, so the Royal Opera House seems to be in pursuit of the mythical music-maker himself: this year the house has presented Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the Camden Roundhouse (with the Early Opera Company in January), Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice on the main stage (September), and, in the Linbury Studio Theatre, both Birtwistle’s The Corridor (June) and the Paris-music-hall style Little Lightbulb Theatre/Battersea Arts Centre co-production, Orpheus (September).

64th Wexford Festival Opera

Wexford Festival Opera has served up another thought-provoking and musically rewarding trio of opera rarities — neglected, forgotten or seldom performed — in 2015.

Christoph Prégardien, Schubert, Wigmore Hall London

Another highlight of the Wigmore Hall complete Schubert Song series - Christoph Prégardien and Christoph Schnackertz. The core Wigmore Hall Lieder audience were out in force. These days, though, there are young people among the regulars : a sign that appreciation of Lieder excellence is most certainly alive and well at the Wigmore Hall. .

The Magic Flute in San Francisco

How did it go? Reactions of my neighbors varied. Some left at the intermission, others remarked that they thought the singing was good.

La Vestale, La Monnaie, Bruxelles

In the first half of the 19th century, Spontini’s La Vestale was a hit. Empress Josephine sponsored its premiere, Parisians heard it hundreds of times, Berlioz raved about it and Wagner conducted it.

Shattering Madama Butterfly Stockholm

An intelligent updating and outstanding performance of the title role lead to a shattering climax in Puccini's Japanese opera



Christopher Purves as Protector, Bejun Mehta as Boy and Barbara Hannigan as Agnès  [Photo © 2012 ROH/Stephen Cummiskey]
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.

George Benjamin: Written on Skin

The Boy : Bejun Mehta, The Protector : Christopher Purves, The Woman : Barbara Hannigan, Marie/Angel : Victoria Simmonds, John/Angel : Alan Clayton, Conductor: George Benjamin, Diirector : Katie Mitchell, Sets : Vicki Mortimer, Lighting : Jon Clark. Royal Opera House, London. 8th March 2013

Above: Christopher Purves as Protector, Bejun Mehta as Boy and Barbara Hannigan as Agnès [Photo © 2012 ROH/Stephen Cummiskey]


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.

Anne Ozorio

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):