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.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
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.
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One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
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Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
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For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
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.