Benjamin’s “Written on Skin” flays opera conventions in U.S. premiere

Wed Aug 12, 2015 at 1:10 pm
Barbara Hannigan and Tim Mead in the U.S. premiere of George Benjamin's opera "Written on Skin." Photo: Richard Termine

Barbara Hannigan and Tim Mead in the U.S. premiere of George Benjamin’s opera “Written on Skin.” Photo: Richard Termine

George Benjamin’s Written on Skin was heard in its American debut Tuesday night at the Mostly Mozart Festival, following rave notices for its 2012 world premiere at the Aix-en-Provence festival. More than most contemporary operas, this is a real collaboration between Benjamin and his librettist, playwright Martin Crimp: Benjamin set Crimp’s words, but Crimp created the theatrical concept that gives this opera intellectual and emotional punch, and makes it fascinating.

Fascinating but not flawless. On the stage at the David H. Koch Theater Written on Skin made a vital argument for both the continued relevance of opera, and for how to continue to make opera relevant.

In Benjamin’s conception, soprano Barbara Hannigan as Agnès and baritone Christopher Purves as the Protector were fully equal partners, working with Benjamin to create their roles. Countertenor Tim Mead, new to the role of the Boy, was no less assured, his full, colorful voice sounding even more finely tailored for the part. The opera is intimate, especially in the enclosed rooms of Vicki Mortimer’s set, and the cast’s acting was assured and natural.

The story is updated from the troubadour romances of the age of chivalry, with a powerful man, the Protector, his young, illiterate wife Agnès, and the Boy who comes between them. The Protector hires the Boy to make an illuminated manuscript that flatters the Protector’s view of himself, and the Boy’s art seduces Agnès, who in turn seduces the boy with her sexuality.

What likely strikes a chord with contemporary audiences is the Protector’s power and how he uses it, especially over Agnès whom he considers his property and from whom he feels it proper to deny knowledge and experience. In terms of plot, the finale owes a bit to Tosca and a bit to Peter Greenaway’s 1989 film,  The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.

But Benjamin’s score is far different than Puccini. The more conspicuous influence is Debussy, outlined by the fluid, through-composed music and vocal settings that mix lyrical lines, nearly spoken exclamations, even mutterings and throaty cries. Benjamin is an expressionistic composer, pushing towards abrading dissonance and an almost metaphysical consonance.

In this story, the Protector, discovering he is a cuckold via the finished book, murders the Boy and serves his cooked heart to Agnès. It is operatic, not cinematic, and in a post-performance discussion between Benjamin, conductor Alan Gilbert, and Lincoln Center artistic director Jane Moss, the composer stated the important, yet under-appreciated point that, in the era of film, the 19th century style of opera doesn’t work anymore.

Written on Skin demonstrates how a dramatic musical narrative can be made in the era of movies and graphic novels. All the characters sing in the first person, and also narrate their own actions, and those of others, in the third person—singing what are implicitly stage directions. The effect is to push the artificiality of the opera form to its logical extreme, and Katie Mitchell’s intelligent direction reinforces this.

The Boy, for example, is also an Angel, one of several who move between our time and that of the Protector and Agnès, like the time-traveling anthropologists in Connie Willis’ novel, The Doomsday Book. They are more than characters and narrators, they engineer the events, and manipulate the Protector and Agnès, as if conducting an experiment on the moral behavior of humans.

The Boy and Angels are stand-ins for the librettist and composer, the gods who created the characters out of nothing, the ultimate arbiters of what happens. The drama abandons the consensual delusion that it is normal for characters to be singing all their words, and by stripping down the form to its barest element, creates the kind of visceral, human experience that is rare on the opera stage.

The scene where Agnès and the Boy seduce each other is stunningly real, the musical and dramatic poetry coming to life in action. In a score that is already lean and sinewy, Benjamin strips the music down to a stark viola da gamba phrase, adorned with the glass harmonica. Repetition and change in the music moves the action forward, and the vast open spaces are filled with the intimacy and heat coming off the stage.

Where the opera stumbles are the moments when it abandons its own values and settles for convention, especially an important scene where Agnès and the Boy argue—she demands his faith and honesty to reveal their love to the Protector, the first step of the denouement. The music is a battle of blasting chords, and its obviousness is out of place with the overall conception.

But the opera recovers in the next scene, in large part because of Purves and his character. Within the excellent cast, Purves was the finest, with a mercurial balance of earthy violence and egotistical self-possession. The Protector is the most fully realized character in the opera, with values, goals, and a past and a present; conversely, Agnès is an object acted upon and the Boy is an archetype.

Throughout, the music has a brittle quality that makes one want to hold it carefully in one’s hands. Gilbert was excellent leading the singers and the great Mahler Chamber Orchestra in this  New York Philharmonic co-presentation. This performance was a reminder of how strong Gilbert is with both opera and contemporary music, and how much he will be missed in those genres.

The conclusion of Written on Skin ties off the opera in the most haunting way imaginable—a staging that combines libretto, music, and action into a tableau that manages to embody Auden’s “Museé des Beaux Arts” and Brueghel’s The Fall of Icarus, a triumph over every hoary opera convention one can imagine.

Written on Skin will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 3 p.m. Saturday.

Barbara Hannigan and Christopher Purves in "Written on Skin." Photo: Richard Termine

Barbara Hannigan and Christopher Purves in “Written on Skin.” Photo: Richard Termine

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