So many contemporary operas I have seen suffer from one or more of the following faults, often causing the whole enterprise to flounder: an over-written or misconceived libretto, a badly chosen story, over-orchestrated music and dubious staging. I was delighted, though, that George Benjamin‘s Written on Skin, currently at the Royal Opera House, avoided all these banana skins and, as a result, is something of a triumph.
The story is based on a medieval Provencal tale, in which a rich landowner commissions a book about his family, written and illustrated by a visitor to his house. The artist – whose writing on skin (vellum) provides one meaning of the title – is seduced by the rich man’s previously submissive wife. When the affair is discovered there is a gruesome outcome. Martin Crimp’s telling of the story retains the period, but mediated by the presence in the action of modern-day ‘angels’, commenting on and even initiating the action, and by a narrative device in which the characters distance themselves from their own lines by adding ‘she said’ or ‘the Protector smiles’ into their lines.
Vicki Mortimer’s brilliant staging reflects this division, with two sections of the stage presenting a contemporary, strip-light design workshop, and the bottom right-hand section the medieval house. Characters move from one section to another, changing costume in full sight from medieval to modern dress. It is striking and effective.
And what of the music? The first thing must be to stress its emotional power and finely wrought harmony, but almost as important is its modesty, never obtruding, supporting but never distracting from the text or the action. The words are clearly set, the vocal lines challenging but not showy. There are beautiful touches in the orchestration – the nasal sound of the bass viol and the glistening glass harmonica in the final scene are brilliantly judged – and the very occasional full scale outbursts all the more effective for being held back for so long.
The singers inhabit their roles convincingly, both in their singing and acting. It helps that this is the second time they have sung it, after the premiere in Aix-en-Provence last year. The central trio are excellent, with Barbara Hannigan as the wife the focus of attention. Her love scene with the Boy (countertenor Bejun Mehta) has a genuine erotic charge, coming from the performers and conjured by the music.
This is a most satisfying operatic creation realised in a brilliant production, directed by Katie Mitchell. If there is a complaint, it might be that at times in the early stages the plot could have been progressed a bit more quickly, but so much care has clearly gone into every aspect of the show that criticism is largely superfluous. This is one to sit back and enjoy – if not to enjoy a meal immediately after.
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