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Scene from Written on Skin [Photo courtesy of Barbara Hannigan]
28 Aug 2015

Written on Skin at Lincoln Center

Three years ago I made what may have been my single worst decision in a half century of attending opera. I wasn’t paying close attention when some conference organizers in Aix-en-Provence offered me two tickets to the premiere of a new opera. I opted instead for what seemed like a sure thing: William Christie conducting some Charpentier.

Written on Skin at Lincoln Center

A review by Andrew Moravcsik

Above: Scene from Written on Skin [Photo courtesy of Barbara Hannigan]


How was I to know that the critics and audiences (not just in Aix, but on a dozen other stages since) would acclaim the new work, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, as the greatest opera written in the past half century?

Recently I had a chance to partially redress the error by attending the US stage premiere of the same production, with two-thirds of the same cast, at the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center on August 13, where Benjamin is composer-in-residence. The opera is everything it is cracked up to be. It is a masterpiece that will surely be performed and appreciated a century from now.

Martin Crimp’s dark libretto, fifteen scenes in an intense 90 minutes with no intermission, is a sophisticated meditation on the story of Adam and Eve. Though characters simultaneously adopt multiple temporal and narrative perspectives in a post-modern manner—for example, by having characters speak about themselves in the third person, and angels serve as both narrators and characters—the basic plot rests on the oldest and simplest of operatic plot devices: the love triangle.

In the Dark Ages, a wealthy older man, the Protector, has a younger wife, Agnès. He invites a Boy, an angel in disguise, to come live with them in order to create an illuminated manuscript. The Boy’s efforts fascinate both man and wife: the former because it offers religious knowledge and the latter because it offers carnal knowledge. The Protector eventually learns that the Boy is teaching Agnès to be erotically self-aware: it hardly matters whether this occurs through an actual affair, pornographic suggestion, or both; or whether the angel seduces the woman, vice versa, or both. The love triangle becomes modestly homosexual as well as heterosexual, since the Protector also appears attracted to the Boy, albeit far more ambivalently than his wife.

Eventually the Protector can no longer bear such threats to the established moral order. He kills the Boy, rips out his heart, cooks it, and—in what he believes to be the ultimate reassertion of paternal authority—orders Agnès to eat it. She obeys, but in a deeper sense defies her husband by proclaiming that she will always love the “salty and sweet” taste of the Boy’s heart. Then, in a final Pyrrhic victory over her husband, she takes her own life by throwing herself from an upper balcony. These proceedings are intermittently narrated by observing angels, who also enter and exit the scene as minor characters. We do not, for example, witness Agnès’s final fall. Rather, in the final bars of the opera, the Boy (restored to angelic form) narrates the vision of her floating body, surrounded by three angels, as if it were the conclusion of his illuminated manuscript.

If the basic purpose of an operatic libretto is to create moments of tension and resolution that spark dramatic excitement, provoke human sympathy and, above all, fuel musical elaboration, Crimp succeeds brilliantly. Angels and manuscripts may seem abstract, intellectual and fussy, but they are in the end just plot devices. The essential action remains visceral and concrete, focused on three sympathetically and convincingly human characters. Throughout, the text remains complex and evocative, yet extremely terse and surprisingly intelligible, even when sung primarily by extremely high voices.

One cannot imagine three more committed singers in the leads. Two of them—Barbara Hannigan as Agnès and Christopher Purves as The Protector—created their roles. Hannigan may well be the greatest singing actress on the operatic stage today, not something often said of a specialist in the contemporary lyric coloratura soprano repertoire. Yet she possesses an instrument of clear tone and, above all, uncannily perfect intonation, which she employs in an uncompromisingly rigorous, musical, passionate and intelligent way. She is a compelling physical character on stage, further enhanced by her clear diction. She rises to the big moments, such as the stunning final portion of the second section of the opera. Overall, this is a riveting portrayal of a woman transformed by knowledge from timidity through passion to resistance.

Christopher Purves is an equally dramatic Protector, believably gruff, clever and strong. From a musical perspective, however, I felt at times that the role was being growled rather than sung, and was less technically solid than it might have been, particularly at the extremes of the vocal range. (This was true also vis-à-vis tapes of his previous performances, so perhaps indisposition played a role.) As this opera enters the canon, perhaps future baritones will approach the role differently. One can imagine a great Verdian with warmth yet steel and darkness in the voice bringing out a different side of what is latent in this tortured character.

Countertenor Tim Mead sang sweetly as the Boy. Some critics disparaged his diction, but I found him quite intelligible. Yet his voice seems to me more boyish than manly, too much of a soprano and not quite enough of an alto, and thus less compelling as the instrument of Agnès’ sexual awakening. Bajun Mehta, who created this role in Aix and sang it in a number of revivals, offers much more vocal and dramatic menace, as befits the equivalent of the Snake in the Garden of Eden. The other angels were strong, particularly Victoria Simmonds who doubled as Marie.

This set of performance revived the production directed by Katie Mitchell, seen originally at the Aix premiere. In general, the stage action was exceptionally persuasive and enhanced core themes of the plot—in part due to the excellent singing actors—while the set design sometimes tipped over into the fussy and unnecessarily self-important mannerisms of modern Regietheater. As is quite the rage in Europe these days, Vicki Mortimer’s sets employ a “Hollywood Squares” design: the stage is divided into boxes with different scenes. Most of the action takes place in the largest rectangle to the lower right: here is the medieval world of the main plot, where Jon Clark’s brilliantly subtle lighting shifts highlighted shifts in mood and perspective. (Trees trunks growing through the floor do, however, suggest further symbolic meanings.) Two boxes to the left, one above the other, are reserved for the observing angels, who are high-tech spirits with computers and Ikea office furniture. To the far right is a narrow stairwell used only by Agnès in the opera’s final moments, as she climbs to her death. And to the upper right is a dark room full of trees that the main characters shun: is this the Garden of Eden, from which all the characters are irremediably estranged? One wonders whether that is the ideal place to which Agnès seeks ultimately to return, or the purgatory from which she seeks to escape.

Engaging though its libretto, singing and staging may be, Written on Skin will enter the operatic canon above all due to its superb orchestral score. Benjamin’s writing is pleasantly free of the kitschy and monotonous devices that weigh down most contemporary opera. It is not an “easy listening” score in which intermittent atonal flourishes separate numbers derived from jazz, pop, traditional American or ethnic Chinese riffs. Nor is it a minimalist opera, in which miniscule bits of musical material are stretched to the breaking point on the rack of repetition. This is music that stands on its own: it is thickly textured and finely crafted, acknowledging yet transcending the past. Not since Britten has anyone written for operatic orchestra with such sensuous beauty, emotional impact, compositional rigor and mature self-restraint.

To be sure, gestures from 20th century modernist opera permeate Written in Skin. Benjamin’s restrained orchestration and way with words remind one of Debussy and Britten. The technique of presenting mythology simultaneously from the perspective of a narrator and a participant recalls not only Britten Rape of Lucretia, but also Stravinsky’s Odepus Rex. As the mind of the Protector unravels, tutti orchestral chords and whining woodwinds recall famous passages from Berg’s Wozzeck—though Benjaminhas purged all of that opera’s overt Romanticism. At various points, specific harmonies and timbres evoke Bartók, Kodály, Janáček, Ligeti, Birtwistle, Stockhausen and a long French tradition ending with Benjamin’s own teacher Messiaen.

Yet Written in Skin is no pastiche. Just as Mozart drew on Haydn, Gluck, Bach and others to forge his own distinct style, Benjamin has done so to craft a coherent 21st century musical language modern-day Mozartian in its spare, elegant beauty. A detailed analysis of Benjamin’s use of color, rhythm and harmony is a task better left to future dissertation writers—or at least those with access to an orchestral score—but here are a few impressions. Though most of the music is understated, Benjamin achieves an exceptional range of orchestral color, deployed with utmost refinement. While he realizes of this color through the use of unusual, often neo-medieval instruments—gamba, (faux) mandolins, glass harmonica and a wide range of percussion—generally he employs conventional, but spare and wide-ranging instrumentation. The most common texture involves simple, often open string intervals punctuated by brief melodic fragments in the woodwinds and muted brass, especially trumpets. The bottom of the orchestra (notably bass clarinet and double basses with a downward extension) is exceptionally active, at times lending the music an ominous quality without overweighting it. Much of the music seems to float in space, enveloping the singers, or is sensuous and serpentine, wrapping itself around them. One particularly effective example is the duet between the Agnès and the Boy, whose voices intertwine suggestively with orchestral lines. While Benjamin is often compared to Debussy, his music generally has more rhythmic impulse than Pelleas, yet without either a repetitive beat or obvious popular music reference. This highly atmospheric music effectively magnifies the shifting psychological moods of the singers, and the effect induced on a sympathetic listener can range from extreme beauty to heart-wrenching poignancy to repugnance. Occasionally the entire orchestra erupts in a jagged, harsh fortissimo, highlighted with piccolo and high flutes, but such passages rarely last. This varied orchestral texture, I find, comes through much more compellingly live than on the many video and audio versions that have circulated.

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra premiered this work at Aix. This is the second time in a month I have heard this group, and both times I have come away thinking there are no better chamber players anywhere in the world. Though atonal, Benjamin’s intervals seem so perfectly judged that they benefit from the spot-on intonation and subtle timbre such expert musicians provide. New York Philharmonic conductor Alan Gilbert conductor led, tempering firm precision with gentle sympathy.

Andrew Moravcsik

Cast and production information:

Christopher Purves, The Protector ; Barbara Hannigan, Agnès ; Tim Mead, Angel 1/The Boy; Victoria Simmonds, Angel 2/Marie ; Robert Murray, Angel 3/John ; David Alexander Parker, Laura Harling, Peter Hobday, and Sarah Northgraves, Angel Archivists.

Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Alan Gilbert, conductor. Katie Mitchell, director. Martin Crimp, text Vicki Mortimer, scenic and costume design. Jon Clark, lighting design.

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