George Benjamin - Written on Skin
Royal Opera House, 2012
George Benjamin, Martin Crimp, Katie Mitchell, Christopher Purves, Barbara Hannigan, Bejun Mehta, Victoria Simmonds, Allan Clayton
Opus Arte - Blu-ray
It's hard to judge and define what makes a work of modern opera great when you don't have history and the legacy of the composer to look back on. One traditional indicator is whether the work continues to gain new productions and draw audiences over the next few years, but in the age of recordings and Blu-rays you can judge for yourself whether a work has merit by how much it draws you back to view it again. On that basis, George Benjamin's Written on Skin is undoubtedly one of the best new opera works of recent years, a work that creates a compelling musical and narrative language of its own that draws you into its world and resembles nothing else out there.
The question of events retaining or gaining significance with time is, not by chance, a large part of what Written on Skin is all about. Based on a 13th century work by the troubadour Guillem de Cabestaing ('Le Coeur mangé'), Written on Skin intentionally and very specifically filters a very old story through new eyes and with a modern sensibility. Can a story that is over 700 years old really have meaning to a modern audience? Can we wipe out the intervening years and understand how a medieval audience would have related to the story? Is there really any way of bringing the past back to life? The intention of playwright Martin Crimp and composer George Benjamin is clearly to show not only how storytelling can be made vital but how great art - and specifically opera - can also be transforming, violent and even dangerous.
To take us back however and indicate that we are exploring narrative, Martin Crimp creates a framework around the original medieval story. The opera opens with a team of 21st century angels erasing the time that has intervened between the period of story and the present day - "Fade out the living, snap back the dead to life" and "shatter the printing press" in order to "make each new book a precious object written on skin". The story they (and the composers) recreate is also a story about creation, going back to the very beginning where the old style of belief that has persisted is embodied in the Man. The Protector is a landowner who believes himself to be the centre of the universe, owner of everything he sees (including his wife's body), deserving of his position, one for which the sun has been designed for only one purpose and that is to shine on his land.
The man however wants his achievements to be immortalised and hires a Boy (a part taken by one of the angels) to create an Illuminated book that testifies to his greatness and the rightness of this order. This is a world where it was seen necessary to "Invent a woman... blame her for everything". His wife however doesn't recognise the Boy's depiction of woman and asks him "Can you invent another woman? A woman who's real?" This new page in the book has unexpected consequences, the woman starting to think for herself, have desires of her own and act of her own accord. This disturbs her husband who, when he discovers (the vanity of the woman can't hide it) that she has been having a sexual liaison with the Boy, kills him and serves his heart up to her to eat.
Inevitably, the framing device of the angels is a very post-modern idea. Recognising that the drama is an artificial construct, the spoken dialogue is even related as if reading from a text, the characters referring to themselves in the third-person and ending sentences with, for example "...says the Boy". Even the fact that the main characters have generic names (Protector, Woman, Boy, Angel 1, Angel 2, Angel 3) is a recognition of this, but significantly, names do come into being with personality, the woman becoming "Agnès". This is particularly a commentary of the power of opera, since few art forms rely on such evident artifice as stage props, music and singing, yet few are as capable of reaching the heart of drama and emotions as this 400 year-old art-form.
The intention then is not to distance the viewer from the original story, but to actually show that despite the passing of time, despite the artifice of staged drama, that the story and the methods employed still have relevance and power. The opera itself is an Illuminated book that immortalises events and puts them into a format that can allow others to viscerally experience the past. That's actually quite an ambitious aim, since if it doesn't engage the viewer or is unable to make the characters come to life then the whole premise falls apart and the work fails. It's a testament then to the strength of the idea and the ability of the creators that the process of creation, the manipulation and playing-out of the story by the "angels", in no way detracts us from the "reality" of the drama recreated in front of your eyes. But then, that's the whole point of opera.
If at times Written on Skin does then feel like a calculated intellectual exercise, it's not a cold one, but one rather that is bursting with ideas, passions and meaning. Much of that is down to the concision of the dramatic setting and the precision of the words used in Martin Crimp's text, but it's brought to life by the equally precise and considered musical score by George Benjamin. It does exactly what the music ought to do flowing behind the words and "illuminating the page", accompanying the emotions, pushing them, but also filling in-between the layers, and in this particular work, short and succinct as it might be, there are many, many layers. Using a variety of ancient, modern and unconventional instruments including a bass viol and a glass harmonica, using discordant jarring modernist sounds and soft beguiling music, Benjamin's score also strives to bring it all together, taking the whole of now and looking back to then.
There's a similar level of concision, complexity and passion in the singing and Benjamin's musical writing allows room for the words to be heard and clarity to allow the voices to express them. It's not about singing beautiful phrases, but finding a voice that dramatically expresses the text and character. You can't ask for better singers in that regard or more fully committed or indeed technically accomplished performances than those given here at Covent Garden (as at the original world premiere in Aix-en-Provence), by Christopher Purves as the Protector, Barbara Hannigan as Agnès and countertenor Bejun Mehta as the Boy. Katie Mitchell's direction makes note of the artifice in Vicki Mortimer's boxed design with angel workshops surrounding the scenes where the drama is played out, but fully recognises the human passions that are played out within it. As with the world premiere in Aix, the composer George Benjamin conducts his own score.
That score is given a beautiful sound stage in the audio tracks on the Blu-ray release. It sounds great in LPCM Stereo, but has a greater depth and ambience in DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. The image is clear and, with a wider than usual 2.35:1 image (with thin black bars at the top and bottom of the screen), it looks quite cinematic. Overhead cameras with wide angles are occasionally used to present a different perspective on the drama. The extra features on the BD are brief but informative, with a 5-minute Introduction to Written on Skin, a 2-minute interview with George Benjamin and a Cast Gallery. Subtitles are in English, French, German and Japanese only.