on 1 March 2013
This recording was made at the 2012 Aix-en-Provence Festival, where "Written on Skin", George Benjamin's second stage work, was premiered. It may well be somewhat embarrassing for the Royal Opera House that they failed to host the premiere of this remarkable and powerful work; they have done their best to rectify this, and the opera opens at Covent Garden next Friday (i.e. March 8th). There is a rumour abroad, too, that the ROH has now commissioned another opera from Benjamin and his brilliant librettist, Martin Crimp - watch this space!
"Written on Skin" is a genuinely gripping work, based on an anonymous 13th century story called "Le coeur mangé" - The Eaten Heart. A Boy is commissioned to create a book in the household of a rich man - the Protector. The man's wife Agnès becomes infatuated with the boy, ending in the boy's murder by her husband - who then forces her to eat the boy's heart. He tries to kill her, but she foils him by leaping from the window to her death (shades of Tosca?!).
So many things to appreciate and praise; the orchestra is the wonderful Mahler Chamber Orchestra, who deliver Benjamin's rich but never over-heavy score with utter confidence, revelling in the intense colours. There are many memorable instrumental contributions - the high wailing bassoon solo in Scene 10, or the spine-chilling chords when the husband confronts the boy in the wood, causing him to tell a 'white lie' - a pivotal moment.
The singers are all outstanding; the wife, whose soprano part is often cruelly high-lying, is sung by Barbara Hannigan, a rising - or risen! - star if ever there was one. She captures the sensuous abandon of Agnès' music brilliantly. Christopher Purves is menacing as her husband, the so-called Protector, and Bejun Mehta, the counter-tenor, finds the precise mixture of purity and seduction as the Boy. The story unfolds at the behest of three 'Angels' - Mehta is one of these, and the other two are Rebecca Jo Loeb and Allan Clayton, who also feature in the story as Marie, Agnès' sister, and her husband John. A small but superb cast. There is nothing superfluous or extravagent about Benjamin's concept; but this is a full-blooded opera,shocking in its stomach-churning conclusion. Can't wait to see it on the stage, just hope I can get a ticket!
Nimbus are to be congratulated on this important new release. There is a complete libretto included in the box, as well as a fascinating and revealing 'interview' with the composer. An added bonus is Benjamin's fine Duet for Piano and Orchestra of 2008.
on 2 March 2013
British opera has had a distinguished recent history; think of The Minotaur, From Morning to Midnight, the Silver Tassie, The Wandering Jew, Powder Her Face and the Tempest (by respectively, Birtwhistle, Sawer, Turnage, Saxton and Ades)....just for starters.
If the form has encountered a problem though it's in securing repeat performances....and sometimes in a certain tardiness in committing works to the silver disc.Not so "Written on Skin", which months after its unveiling in France is presented here thanks to the efforts of the Peter Moores Foundation and Nimbus Records. These discs encompass an article of faith in British Opera, and George Benjamin in particular, which I sincerely hope is rewarded; both by sales of this set and attendance at performances forthcoming at the Royal Opera.
Although not Benjamin's first opera, it's his first substantial one. Once again it's a collaboration with librettist Martyn Crimp, with whom Benjamin worked on his previous chamber opera, "Into the Little Hill". At the suggestion of Bernard Foccroulle, Director of the Aix-en-Provence Festival, Crimp was introduced to the C13 tale of "Guillem de Cabestanh - Le Coeur Mange". However, as Crimp recalls, he had "an instinctive desire to allow our contemporary world bleed through into the drama", and so he creates C21 Angels who initiate and provoke the action....an inspiration further kindled by Walter Benjamin's "Angel of History"; a figure who looks back on past catastrophes, and wishes to go back and awaken the dead, only to be inexorably blown toward the future by storm winds from Paradise.
The title "Written on Skin" is an allusion to books, a precious commodity in the Middle Ages, which were hand written and illuminated on animal hide. The action meanwhile revolves around a Protector, a wealthy and intelligent landowner, who is addicted to the poles of purity and violence; his obedient wife whom he sees as his "property", and one of the Angels who transforms into the "Boy".
The plot concerns the commission of a book, from the Boy by the Protector, to celebrate his life and good deeds, involving the introduction of the artist into the household...... despite his wife's strong misgivings.
Fascinated by the process Agnes investigates and is "seduced" by the artists' "woman image". Gradually realising their involvement, the Boy tries to deflect The Protector's anger by implying he is actually involved with Marie, Agnes' sister. However Agnes believes him too and she demands the Boy create new, and distorted, imagery to shock her husband. Left alone the Protector realises, when reading this "secret page" aloud to Agnes, that in fact it describes the affair with the Boy, and he departs for the woods to murder him.
In the final scene the Boy reappears as an Angel, presenting a picture of the Protector taking a knife to Agnes. She however prefers death by falling from a balcony. Pictured suspended in the night sky, the Angels turn to meet the audience's gaze.
Superficially "another tawdry love triangle" Crimp and Benjamin transform any such notion through the use of haunting , sometimes remote, yet timeless imagery supported by Benjamin's creative instrumentation, using for instance such colours as the bass viol and glass harmonica.
The structure of multiple, comparatively short, scenes gives something of the feel of a "book of hours", yet there is no sense of medieval colour and pageantry. I felt black and white, cold grey castle rooms, and a distinct disquiet throughout, with a threat of unsophisticated anger and violence from the Protector a constant factor.
The discs are "filled out" with "Duet", a work for piano and orchestra, featuring Pierre Laurent Aimard, a friend of Benjamin's since student days, and the soloist in its debut performance at Lucerne in 2008. Like the soloists in the opera, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (who perform throughout), everyone seems completely inside the idiom. The engineering, courtesy of Radio France (the opera live from the Aix Festival) is unobtrusively excellent.
Bravo to all concerned for their support and belief in worthwhile new work. I wish it well at Covent Garden. It will be fascinating to see if Benjamin is tempted to consider a further opera after the success of this one.