I found it a bit of a challenge to start writing about the performance of Written on Skin on March 19th, feeling I had used up all my superlatives when it was performed at the Royal Opera House back in 2013. I was so engaged by this score on the first night of that production that I bought a ticket to see it a second time with a composer and friend. She loved it too, which constitutes a a professional opinion, methinks.
Its second outing in the UK – which I thought was hard on the heels the ROH production until I discovered it was three years‘ ago not last year, such was the impact it had on me at the time – was in the Barbican concert hall with the composer conducting the excellent Mahler Chamber Orchestra. The Barbican is fast becoming an important venue for “semi-staged” operas and concert performances of Baroque operas, although the term “semi-staged” seems open to a wide range of interpretations. This time the opera was directed by Benjamin Davis. He collaborated with Katie Mitchell on the world premiere production of Written on Skin at the Aix-en-Provence Festival and clearly knows the opera inside-out. His direction was subtle, but extremely effective. The singers were not in costume and his only props were pages of vellum, a satchel and a couple of accessories – high heels and a scarf. There was no set and no exits and entrances. The music was allowed to speak for itself.
I used to think of George Benjamin as a consummate composer of chamber orchestral works rather than an opera composer until I saw Into the Little Hill (2006) which was brought to the Linbury Theatre in 2009 and 2010 (and yes, I went to both productions.) This was Mr Benjamin’s first foray into the genre of opera as well as his first collaboration with the librettist of Written on Skin, Martin Crimp. The instrumentalists were in plain sight on the stage and I found myself captivated by the specific sonorities he elicited from his group of fifteen players, such as the magical and sinister sounds produced by basset horns and cimbalon, supported by a dark layer of lower strings. In contrast with the immediacy of the music, I found Mr Crimp’s device of getting the singers to narrate the action somehow distanced me from the drama.
When I first heard Written on Skin, one of the many things which was so impressive was the fact that the libretto this time contains as much dramatic tension as the music, meaning that words and music form a a powerful, integrated whole. Instead of the protagonists standing in the wings and offering us observations of what had already happened, in Written on Skin the singers still speak of themselves in the third person, for example “‘This is Paradise,’ the Boy said.” However this device now makes it possible for us to hear utterances which are almost too powerful to be said directly. Instead of being pushed away to arm’s length, the audience participates as witnesses.
In seeing this opera transferred from a stage set to a concert performance, I expected that once again the balance between music and words would be disrupted, with Mr Benjamin’s compositional brilliance overwhelming the relatively simple libretto. O ye of little faith. With five singers in front of the orchestra and Mr Benjamin fully in command of the balance, I gained much more from this reading of the libretto. Every little nuance was exposed, the Protector’s admission to his brother that the Boy has captivated him too, the temporal layers of the Boy who is also an Angel, making references to the 21st century while inhabiting the medieval world of illuminated manuscripts, the power of some lines uttered by the Woman, such as “Oh please show me the word for love” were all brought to us in the jewelled colours of the Lindisfarne Gospels.
Not only was the libretto enhanced by this level of exposure but I gained an extra dimension from seeing the instrumentalists on stage. I loved watching the glass harmonica, the high bassoon lament which had previously convinced me it was played on saxophone, the eerie use of a solo bass viol, a trio of nervy flutes, low drones on the clarinets. So much of the unending drama and tension in this opera is carefully and precisely pointed by different colours in the score. The composer has the ability to create an atmosphere by using slow-moving harmony for groups of strings, creating an uneasy backdrop before which the Protector’s mania is played out. When the Woman and the Boy first meet in secret, the orchestra plays in a whisper, leaving the vocal lines to dance around each other before becoming entwined. When the Protector’s brother and his wife voice their concerns that the Boy and the Woman are having an elicit relationship, this is underpinned by a hectic, edgy dance. When the Woman and the Boy meet again under cover of darkness, we are beguiled by a bass viol until the Woman realises the Boy has painted her in his depiction of “Woman,” at which point the brittle sounds of the glass harmonica take over.
In Part Two the Woman is accompanied by high bassoon, but the rest of the orchestra soon swells into life as the Woman challenges the Boy to tell her why he lied about having sex with her sister-in-law. The section reaches a climax as the Woman challenges the Boy to depict their passion in the book in order to make her husband “cry blood.” The last word is sung on a high C. In Part Three over muted strings and low winds the Protector learns he has been cuckolded and the orchestra reflects his decision to respond with violence. Spoiler alert: the Protector serves up the Boy’s heart to his wife, who responds with another aria ending on a high C. In a postlude the Boy in the form of First Angel draws together all the musical threads of the drama, which he has of course painted. The orchestra dies away in a final obstinate.
Last time I heard Barbara Hannigan she was dominating the stage of the Garnier in a tour-de-force of physical acting as the abandoned lover in Poulenc La voix humaine. Reprising the role created for and by her in Written on Skin, she wore an amazing silk dress which beautifully illustrated this young bride’s vulnerability mixed with steeliness. (Unlike at a previous opera in concert at the Barbican, this time there was no PR company giving more attention to the dress than the singer’s performance.) Without costume and stage set, and with the proximity of the singer to the stalls, we were treated to a physically electrifying and vocally spellbinding performance from Ms Hannigan. Through her transformation from a rather lonely but entirely innocent 14-year-old girl to a woman in her fierce sexual prime, Ms Hannigan was both physically and vocally captivating.
I also thought Christopher Purves was excellent in the staged production as the arrogant Protector who abandons his serfs and land as a result of his obsession with the Boy and the Book. I couldn’t have envisaged he could deliver a finer performance, but he did. One could almost taste his anger, jealousy, obsession with this lithe, attractive boy, with owning his specially-commissioned book, with humiliating the wife he had once thought was as pure as the driven snow. Mr Purves’ versatility is beyond question, encompassing as it does Handel’s Saul, Messiah, Acis and Galatea via the roles of Alberich to modern greats such as Written on Skin and The Perfect American. I greatly enjoyed his first solo CD of Handel’s Finest Arias for Bass Voice which I listened to on a road trip to Versailles when it first came out. (My spies tell me he has the next CD in the can.) Whilst I had no doubts about the quality of his singing, I didn’t expect to see such a moving and committed performance as an actor, throwing all caution to the wind in favour of total physical commitment. It is such a privilege to see a performer of this calibre give his all to a performance.
It was great to see two younger singers, products of the British operatic training courses but who have now moved on to greater things, hold their own in the roles of Marie and John. Victoria Simmonds in particular very cleverly differentiated between her role as an angel and playing a bored housewife who wanted to attract the attentions of the Boy. Robert Murray is a classic Mozartean tenor who is also a fine exponent of Handel’s tenor roles and has even started to make his mark in Wagner. See him this summer at Garsington.
And finally, I come to Tim Mead. Previously I have heard Mr Mead in two different Handel operas; never in contemporary music. I loved the sounds Bejun Mehta made as the Boy in the ROH production. I hadn’t heard Mr Mead compete with a sizeable modern orchestra, nor did I know how I’d feel about an English gentleman taking over the role previously played by someone who is lithe, feral and other-worldly by comparison. I need not have feared. I heard every well-formed, focused note from Mr Mead who offers a variety of timbres in his very-well-controlled countertenor voice, was captivated by his musicianship and feel he owned his interpretation of the Boy. This was a Puckish supernatural being, clothed in the garb of an elegant, fresh-faced young man, able to switch in an instant from apparent innocent to arch-manipulator.
This performance at the Barbican was the final event in a tour of Written on Skin this spring; it was also the opera’s 70th performance. When I wrote an ecstatic review of the opera after my first hearing, I was careful not to describe it as a modern masterpiece or “the best modern opera since Wozzeck” as others did. Now I find I have run out of stars to add to the bottom of my second review. I hear there are 7 star hotels, though I have never been fortunate enough to stay in one. If I could, I would award this opera 7 stars.