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.
on 21 July 2014
Written on Skin is the work of British composer George Benjamin with text by Martin Crimp. It takes place in medieval Italy and tells a story of three people: the Protector, his wife Agnes and the Boy and their complicated love triangle. The story is told though a framework of XXI C. angels, one of whom becomes the Boy and experiences the forces of sexual attraction and violence.
The story focuses on the Boy who is commissioned by the Protector to create a book. The Protector’s wife Agnes finds herself attracted to the Boy and it is through that attraction that she is able to liberate herself from her abusive husband who treats her like his property. This Opera is violent and full of passion. Characters sing about themselves in a 3rd person form, which can be a little confusing at the beginning, but with a little adjusting ceases to be a problem.
The set design is very impressive as it is divided into two parts – a minimalist modern scene and another that represents medieval Italy. Most of the action takes place in the medieval part and characters there are expressive the full of passion. This clashes with the modern part that is calm and clean and has some sort of clinical feel to it. It is a shame that there are so few shots featuring the whole of the stage, as the contrast is a little lost in the DVD version.
The lightening in the production is remarkable and watching the DVD feels more like watching a film rather than a recording of the onstage piece. Another benefit to watching Written On Skin at home is that you can look at the singers great performance up close including their movements and facial expression – something I was not able to do in the theatre.
The DVD includes a leaflet with a synopsis of the Opera as well as an introduction to Benjamin’s work. (Available in French and German) The DVD has English, French, German and Japanese subtitles making it accessible to the international audience. The extra features include cast gallery, interview with George Benjamin and an introduction to ‘Written on Skin’.
I think this work can be challenging for those who are not too familiar with Opera. I certainly would not recommend this performance to someone new to the world of Opera. However the DVD’s extras offer a great inside to the work of Benjamin. Although the storyline was a little confusing at first I have gained a much better understanding of the work being able to see it twice.
Although this 'opera' by George Bejamin is well produced, directed, acted and staged to the highest, five star, quality, it will not appeal to everyone and it didn't to me. Since I enjoy opera for the music and singing, I wasn't best pleased at having to sit through 90 minutes of actors sing-shouting at each other on one note without the slightest differentiation. Why didn't I just switch it off? Because I wouldn't have been able to write this review if I had.
Although I think I can see what the composer is 'getting at' in this obviously thoughtfully engendered and carefully considered work, which has real meaning for the understanding of the complex interactions involved in human relationships, it isn't the kind of performance I would watch for the sheer enjoyment of it and I think many other people will be like me in this respect. However, since it reveals a deep appreciation of the workings of the human psyche, it's thought provoking and worth enduring' for that reason alone. I would also say that it needs to be watched at least twice to truly appreciate it, although this advice comes with a 'health warning' as many may find this tedious.
It deserves five stars for the high qualities of its composition, production and acting even though some may find it depressing to .watch. However, viewers will notice that the audience on the recording, if their enthusiastic clapping is anything to go by, seem to have appreciated it very much.
on 31 August 2015
I saw this twice at the opera house, Covent Garden during its first run and was immediately taken with it as a great work with several layers of meaning. The Blu-Ray displays the production better by focusing in on the singers facial expressions when necessary. The singing and acting skills are excellent and the production is effective in switching between two sets one mediaeval, the other present day. Particular mention should be made about Barbara Hannigan (as Agnes), Christopher Purves (as The Protector) and Bejun Mehta (as The Boy and First Angel.) This is a disc that deserves repeated playings to discover each time more from this production that I cannot fault.I recommend this Blu-Ray to all lovers of opera and hope that this production gets performances at opera houses worldwide..