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. In the age of DVD and Blu-ray you can judge for yourself now whether a work has merit by how much it draws you back to view it again. On that basis, standing up to repeated viewings that reveal new elements, 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 creates a world that resembles little 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. The medieval story involves a wealthy landowner, the Protector, who wishes to have his achievements and his pre-eminent place in the world to be immortalised by hiring an artisan to create an illuminated manuscript. His wife however wishes also to have her place in this world redefined and encourages the Boy to make the woman real. Starting to think for herself and act of her own accord undermines the Protector's position, so that when he discovers that his wife has cheated on him, he kills the Boy and serves his heart up to her to eat.
Crimp and Benjamin however use a framing device of 21st century angels in an adjoining "workshop" recreating and taking part in the drama. It's a very post-modern device in how it alerts us to the fact that the drama is an artificial construct. The intention however 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 great art - and specifically opera - can be transforming, but also violent and even dangerous. The opera itself is an Illuminated Book that immortalises events and puts them into a format that can allow us to viscerally experience the past. 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. The writing also gives due regard for the words and the voices to sing 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 and 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. The image quality 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, a 2-minute interview with Benjamin and a Cast Gallery. Subtitles are in English, French, German and Japanese only.