Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Pascal Dusapin’s Passion at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

Ten years ago, I saw one of the first performances of Pascal Dusapin’s Passion at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. Now, Music Theatre Wales and National Dance Company Wales give the opera its first United Kingdom production - in an English translation by Amanda Holden from the original Italian: the first time, I believe, that a Dusapin opera has been performed in translation. (I shall admit to a slight disappointment that it was not in Welsh: maybe next time.)

Tosca in San Francisco

The story was bigger than its actors, the Tosca ritual was ignored. It wasn’t a Tosca for the ages though maybe it was (San Francisco’s previous Tosca production hung around for 95 years). P.S. It was an evening of powerful theater, and incidentally it was really good opera.

Fine performances in uneven War Requiem at the Concertgebouw

At the very least, that vehement, pacifist indictment against militarism, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, should leave the audience shaking a little. This performance by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra only partially succeeded in doing so. The cast credits raised the highest expectations, but Gianandrea Noseda, stepping in for an ailing Mariss Jansons and conducting the RCO for the first time, did not bring out the full potential at his disposal.

The Tallis Scholars at Cadogan Hall

In their typical non-emphatic way, the Tallis Scholars under Peter Phillips presented here a selection of English sacred music from the Eton Choirbook to Tallis. There was little to ruffle anyone’s feathers here, little in the way of overt ‘interpretation’ – certainly in a modern sense – but ample opportunity to appreciate the mastery on offer in this music, its remoteness from many of our present concerns, and some fine singing.

Dido and Aeneas: Academy of Ancient Music

“Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.” Well, the spectral Queen of Carthage atop the poppy-strewn sarcophagus wasn’t quite yet “laid in earth”, but the act of remembering, and remembrance, duly began during the first part of this final instalment of the Academy of Ancient Music’s Purcell trilogy at the Barbican Hall.

Poignantly human – Die Zauberflöte, La Monnaie

Mozart Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) at La Monnaie /De Munt, Brussels, conducted by Antonello Manacorda, directed by Romeo Castellucci. Part allegory, part Singspeile, and very much a morality play, Die Zauberflöte is not conventional opera in the late 19th century style. Naturalist realism is not what it's meant to be. Cryptic is closer to what it might mean.

Covent Garden: Wagner’s Siegfried, magnificent but elusive

How do you begin to assess Covent Garden’s Siegfried? From a purely vocal point of view, this was a magnificent evening; it’s hard not to reach the conclusion that this was as fine a cast as you are likely to hear anywhere today.

Powerful Monodramas: Zender, Manoury and Schoenberg

The concept of the monologue in opera has existed since the birth of opera itself, but when we come to monodramas - with the exception of Rousseau’s Pygmalion (1762) - we are looking at something that originated at the beginning of the twentieth century.

ENO's Salome both intrigues and bewilders

Femme fatale, femme nouvelle, she-devil: the personification of patriarchal castration-anxiety and misogynistic terror of female desire.

In the Company of Heaven: The Cardinall's Musick at Wigmore Hall

Palestrina led from the front, literally and figuratively, in this performance at Wigmore Hall which placed devotion to the saints at its heart, with Saints Peter, Paul, Catherine of Alexandria, Bartholomew and the Virgin Mary all musically honoured by The Cardinall’s Musick and their director Andrew Carwood.

Roberto Devereux in San Francisco

Opera’s triple crown, Donizetti’s tragic queens — Anna Bolena who was beheaded by her husband Henry VIII, their daughter Elizabeth I who beheaded her rival Mary, Queen of Scots and who executed her lover Roberto Devereux.

O18: Queens Tries Royally Hard

Opera Philadelphia is lightening up the fare at its annual festival with a three evening cabaret series in the Theatre of Living Arts, Queens of the Night.

O18 Magical Mystery Tour: Glass Handel

How to begin to quantify the wonderment stirred in my soul by Opera Philadelphia’s sensational achievement that is Glass Handel?

Magic Lantern Tales: darkness, disorientation and delight from Cheryl Frances-Hoad

“It produces Effects not only very delightful, but to such as know the contrivance, very wonderful; so that Spectators, not well versed in Opticks, that could see the various Apparitions and Disappearances, the Motions, Changes and Actions, that may this way be presented, would readily believe them super-natural and miraculous.”

A lunchtime feast of English song: Lucy Crowe and Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall

The September sunshine that warmed Wigmore Street during Monday’s lunch-hour created the perfect ambience for this thoughtfully compiled programme of seventeenth- and twentieth-century English song presented by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall.

O18: Mad About Lucia

Opera Philadelphia has mounted as gripping and musically ravishing an account of Lucia di Lammermoor as is imaginable.

O18 Poulenc Evening: Moins C’est Plus

In Opera Philadelphia’s re-imagined La voix humaine, diva Patricia Racette had a tough “act” to follow ...

O18: Unsettling, Riveting Sky on Swings

Opera Philadelphia’s annual festival set the bar very high even by its own gold standard, with a troubling but mesmerizing world premiere, Sky on Wings.

Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony — Martyn Brabbins BBCSO

From Hyperion, an excellent new Ralph Vaughan Williams A Sea Symphony with Martyn Brabbins conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus, Elizabeth Llewellyn and Marcus Farnsworth soloists. This follows on from Brabbins’s highly acclaimed Vaughan Williams Symphony no 2 "London" in the rarely heard 1920 version.

Simon Rattle — Birtwistle, Holst, Turnage, and Britten

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra marked the opening of the 2018-2019 season with a blast. Literally, for Sir Harrison Birtwistle's new piece Donum Simoni MMXVIII was an explosion of brass — four trumpets, trombones, horns and tuba, bursting into the Barbican Hall. When Sir Harry makes a statement, he makes it big and bold !

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

<em>Written on Skin</em>, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
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.

Written on Skin, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Barbara Hannigan (Agnès) and Iestyn Davies (The Boy)

Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

 

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.

0326 WRITTEN ON SKIN PRODUCTION IMAGE c ROH. PHOTO STEPHEN CUMMISKEY.jpgPhoto credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

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

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):