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VINE VOICEon 1 December 2014
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.
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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..
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on 28 May 2014
We knew nothing about this opera and , for the first 20 minutes or so,wondered if anything was going to happen. By then we were more in tune with the method of telling the story and the action grew by the moment. We were transfixed and shall be watching the DVD again. The music is really used to accentuate the action and works brilliantly in that context. I cannot imagine it working so well purely as a sound track.
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on 30 August 2014
Stunning. Superb performance and presentation.
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on 4 January 2014
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.
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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.
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on 6 August 2014
Written on Skin is a modern opera composed by George Benjamin and written by Martin Crimp. It tells the story of three main characters: The Boy, The Protector and his submissive wife Agnes. Set in 13th Century Provence, the wealthy Protector pays the Boy to create an illuminated manuscript to document his deeds. The Boy and the Protector’s wife Agnes become attracted to each other, initiating a love triangle between the characters, setting the scene for Agnes’ uprising and a surprising act of revenge. The Boy is murdered by the Protector, who then forces Agnes to eat The Boy’s heart, finally, in the operatic climax Agnes commits suicide.
Nearly all of the Opera is sung by the three characters, giving the duration an almost short feeling compared to the typically 2 1/2 hour Operas that I am used to.

The libretto written by Martin Crimp is very straightforward, and easy to understand while still being very dramatic, it is styled in a way which allows the main characters to talk about themselves and narrate their actions in the third person, almost allowing the audience to hear their thoughts whilst creating a subtle distance between the performer and the character. The vivid intensity is maintained throughout the performance

As usual the Orchestra are fantastic, with the orchestral score including conventional instruments, as well as a few unusual ones like the glass harmonica and steel drum.

I particularly liked the very modern staging, which is divided into four sections akin to different periods in time; two sections on the left resembling office rooms, and in the right sided sections, the inside of the Protector’s home and an outdoor wood area. There is a stark contrast between the two sides, with the left side having a very simplistic office style, giving it a very modern vibe compared to the ‘period’ design of the right side.

Another element of the performance that was enjoyable was the use of the ‘secondary’ Angel characters. The staging and libretto provided that the Angels were not just mere onlookers but were active in the story, they appear throughout the Opera steering the characters in their different directions, whispering rumors and impulses to the characters and setting the scene

The lighting was also very good providing the right atmosphere for the particular scene along with the camera angles sometimes focusing on one particular room to allow the viewer to feel completely immersed in the scene and see the character’s facial expression and actions, rather than have to search the stage for the character.

The DVD also includes behind the scene videos, a selection of subtitles including French, Italian and German and a leaflet with a thorough synopsis enabling viewers to get a better understanding of the opera.

Although at the beginning it took me a while to follow the opera, I enjoyed the intensity and staging. It was also a pleasant surprise to find that the Opera was sung entirely in English, allowing me to focus more on the Opera and not have to split my concentration between the subtitles and the performance. Definitely a must see for any modern opera lovers.
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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.
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on 30 March 2016
This was a really disappointing opera debut after such a build up. Not a really gripping story . Not that well written and put to some very second rate music. If one compares it to Birtwistle for example it is a vey poor second. The singers did their best with the scraps thrown to them . Once again the Royal Opera has missed the target.
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on 16 June 2014
As someone still feeling their way around opera, I found Written on Skin a challenge, but the sensitive and innovative filming of the production provides some powerful and lasting imagery.

The curtain rises on an interesting set, divided into a number of blocks, the two on the left being modern, minimalist and functional - perhaps representing the back offices and changing room of the Royal Opera House or a laboratory - whilst the blocks on the right represent the 13th century home and gardens of the central characters, the Protector and his wife Agnès. It took me a while to understand what was going on and how the two different sets of blocks were integrated. Whilst the singing was, of course, impeccable, it was not until several minutes in that I realised the opera was in fact sung in English. Had it not been for the useful synopsis provided with the DVD, I would certainly have struggled to make head or tail of the production. The plot is complex and ambitious, with many details difficult to portray through opera. A story within a story, the opera depicts the tragic tale of an apprentice entering the home of the Protector and Agnès, eventually establishing a relationship with the latter. The story is manipulated by the modern day Chorus of Angels, who form the additional characters, change the scenery and costumes, and even turn the lights on and off. All very confusing, but a very interesting concept once you get your head around it.

This is certainly not to discredit the work of the singers themselves. Whilst diction could be at times a little clearer, their singing and acting were excellent, providing depth to the characters from the very outset – Barbara Hannigan’s concerned and tortured Agnès was particularly powerful. The use of a mixture of camera angles enables their true acting talent to be seen, with the close ups showing the subtleties of their acting and discrediting the usual perception of opera being over the top. Indeed, it is the filming that really makes this production, giving movement to an otherwise static set and enabling the audience to appreciate the subtle details present. The camera angles are innovative, including offering a bird’s eye view, shifting within the set itself, and looking up the stairs towards Heaven in the closing scene. As a result, this DVD feels as if it is actually a film specially produced for the camera, rather than a performance on stage at the Royal Opera House, allowing the viewer to truly get lost in the action. Whilst not to everyone’s taste, this is a must see for any modern opera lover, as well as students of film, stage production and set design.
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