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.