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Take another little piece of my heart now, baby!

George Benjamin’s 2012 opera Written on Skin received great acclaim at its opening at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, and the Royal Opera quickly mounted it in March 2013.  Seen in this DVD from Opus Arte, the work has a great deal going for it: an impeccable cast of committed singing actors, Benjamin himself as conductor, a libretto (here called “text”) by the modernist British playwright Martin Crimp, and the excellent forces of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.  

Based on a 13th century Provençal tale, the story is bleak and grim in the extreme.  The Protector (a powerful land baron) commissions a young artist (The Boy) to make an illustrated book about his life and work.  The Protector’s wife, Agnes (The Woman), frustrated at her lot in life (The Protector calls her body “his property”) and her lack of passion for her husband, soon enters into a frenzied sexual affair with The Boy.  The Protector, seemingly ambivalent about his own feelings for The Boy, soon learns of the affair, murders The Boy, and, shades of Titus Andronicus, feeds his heart to Agnes.  Agnes tells her husband that “nothing will ever take the sweet/salty taste of The Boy’s heart from her mouth”, then leaps to her death from the top of the castle.

The opera features a cast including The Protector, Agnes, and seven “angels,” one of whom plays The Boy, another Agnes’ sister Marie, another her husband John.  The Angels do all the scene changes, prepare the props and costume changes, even move the principal characters into their proper positions.  Stage director Katie Mitchell and designer Vicki Mortimer set the opera in a two-level, four-room stage.

The rooms stage left are the “medieval rooms” where the story takes place; the rooms stage right are the “modern rooms” where The Angels do their work.  In Crimp’s text, modern references to such things as the “Saturday car park” fold seamlessly into the medieval story.  While these modern/medieval references sometimes seem clumsy devices, they do provide an essential through-line to the theme of the opera: the human condition and human cruelty and obsession are timeless.

The performances are all splendid, both vocally and dramatically.  Soprano Barbara Hannigan completely embodies the frustrated Agnes in a risky, gutsy performance that vividly illuminates every nuance of this complex, tortured character.  The vocal gymnastics of the role are handled with ease and beauty.  Ditto Bejun Mehta as the Boy, his voluptuous countertenor sounding clear and clean and hauntingly beautiful.  Christopher Purves as The Protector brings a great sense of dangerous fury to the role while also conveying the terror of a man being questioned about his manhood for the very first time.  Victoria Simmonds and Allan Clayton make the small roles of Marie and John sizzle with energy.

I found Crimp’s text frequently marvelous but also perplexing.  There is something off-putting about the characters’ use of both first and third person throughout—“You’re in my light, says The Boy”, “And by day, says The Protector, fruit trees… turn towards the sun.”  In Christopher Wintle’s essay that accompanies the disc, he refers to this as Brechtian—“continually distancing the audience in order to engage it more intensely.”  While one does get used to this conceit as the opera progresses, I found in far more distancing than engaging.  I was able to admire the structure of the story and the psychological agonies of the characters, but only in an objective way.  It was often like peeking through a window at the action rather than empathizing with the situation.

My response to Benjamin’s score was also mixed.  At first hearing, I found it noisy and rather generically “mysterious.”  I also kept thinking that it sounded a lot like the results of putting Wozzeck, Pelleas, Lulu, and maybe Peter Grimes in a blender, seasoned with a touch of Stravinsky and Strauss.  But later hearings began to reveal sonorities that are particular to Benjamin, as well as unique use of environmental sounds including pebbles falling, sleigh and cow bells, and the sound of a computer typepad.  The music is effectively reflective of the sensuality, violence, sexuality, and suppressed emotion in the story.  It is nevertheless most effective in its quiet, almost breath-holding moments; the over-the-top use of cymbals and crashing percussion in the story’s violent moments are simply noisy and off-putting.

Written On Skin is an admirable musical exploration of the darkest sides of human nature.  It has much to say about the nature and cause of naked cruelty, about the results of the repression of women, about the abuse of power and the lengths that men will go to preserve it.  There is also a fascinating look at sexuality in all its expressions—the moment in Part Two when The Protector suddenly kisses The Boy and it turns into a moment of passion that is never repeated or spoken of—is a dramatic surprise that adds to the sense of danger and unpredictability in the work that keeps it vividly alive.

The scenes build toward the harrowing climax where Agnes is forced to eat the heart of The Boy—a scene so stunning that it’s barely watchable—and, afterwards, there is no alternative to the suicidal outcome.  In these moments of horror, Crimp’s text and Benjamin’s music truly come together to make a powerful statement.  And, throughout, the extraordinary depth of characterization and ravishing singing from Hannigan, Mehta, and Purves is thrilling to see and hear.

26 comments

  • Cicciabella says:

    Thank you for this well thought-out review, HK. Written on Skin is a powerful work with immediate impact, whatever its shortcomings, and deserves to stay in the repertory. I too could not reconcile the passionate interpretations by the singers and the libretto’s attempts to distance itself from the characters’ emotions. I found this push-pull artistically frustrating, rather than alienating in any Brechtian sense. However, as you point out, this work’s best moments are truly wonderful. And the cast couldn’t be bettered.

    • oedipe says:

      I too could not reconcile the passionate interpretations by the singers and the libretto’s attempts to distance itself from the characters’ emotions.

      Call it the intrinsic, defining contradiction of postmodernism.

      If one is to try to define postmodernism, it is the romantic excess without the emotional implication, looked at from a distance with a dissecting eye.

      • m. croche says:

        And here I thought postmodernists were averse to concepts like “intrinsic” and “definition”.

        • oedipe says:

          This definition is mine. That’s how I see it and that’s how I can come to terms with it. There are probably a million other (shots at) definitions out there that people can choose from. Pick the one you like. Or not. (Nota bene: I am not a postmodernist, at least not intrinsically; I am merely looking at it from a distance.)

        • m. croche says:

          Yeah, I’m not so much into essentializing thought and shudder whenever I read “definitions” of abstract, zeitgeist-y movements that are alleged to have appeared in cultural history.

          Even playing the game of “definitions”, I think you’re off. The librettist apparently cites Brecht as a precedent and Stravinsky certainly provided us with distanced attitudes towards romanticism (see, Fee, Le Baiser de la).

          In music circles, one of the most frequently cited hallmarks of “postmodernism” was supposed to be its unguarded emotional involvement with its materials and in its expression. This “Distancing” was regarded as outmoded modernism, while self-proclaimed modernists were outraged by what they saw as self-indulgence.

          Just approaching the subject from an empirical stance, i.e. “What have people historically called postmodernism?”, your definition seems quite off.

          • oedipe says:

            I was referring to postmodernism in its more narrow literary/philosophical sense (as developed, for instance, by Lyotard, Baudrillard, or Derrida). I was not referring to postmodernism in music.

            The widespread use of pastiche and irony in postmodern literature is a “distancing” device.

            When Lyotard talks about the “métarecits” of history -which for him are mere “language games”-, or when Baudrillard talks about the “simulacres” which have taken over the “real” world , these are “distancing” concepts.

            • m. croche says:

              And yet the librettist, according to the review, specifically cites Brecht as the source of his distancing device. Is Brecht postmodern? Irony has been a tool since the so-called Romantics. Shklovsky used “defamiliarization” as a fundamental literary technique, but one he particularly identified with Tolstoy. The problem with definitions such as the one you offered is that they at once encompass too much and too little.

            • oedipe says:

              So, if the librettist only cites Brecht, it means it’s forbidden to see any other influences on his text?

              You said that “distancing” was regarded as outmoded by postmodernists. I gave you examples that show it’s simply not the case.

              But you know what? You win! You are right, I am wrong. As usual.

            • m. croche says:

              It means that you’re not going to get very far claiming that distancing techniques represent “the intrinsic defining contradiction of postmodernism”.

          • Camille says:

            m.c.—
            Here you would be speaking in ironic fashion?
            As the composer himself does not consider that to be his niche, at ALL, but one of the first of the “neo-romantic” schol, if that is what one would call it.

            Also, being mentioned on the same page with Benjamin would give him hives!

            I had a little discussion with him about this work and can attest to the fact that it is felt very deeply, sincerely, and was meant to help this terrible situation and not, as some might have said, to exploit it. He operates on a, what can I say that won’t be scorned or sniggered at?—--a heartfelt impulse

            Thank you for having posted “Bullycide”, in any event as certainly on parterre it should make its presence felt. Thank you very much, m.c.

            • m. croche says:

              Hiya, Camille:

              Ahem

              “It may well have been Del Tredici’s success in the simple and unembellished tonal writing of the “Acrostic Song” that encouraged him to devote the next five years of his compositional life to the writing of his neo-tonal romantic Postmodernist monument, Child Alice.”

              DDT, like many sensible composers, has a horror of those labels so popular with journalists and academics. My purpose in citing his music was as an example of what the perpetrators of the term “postmodernism” have considered to be an exemplar of the style. I might just as well have chosen

    • Talk of the Town says:

      I found the libretto extremely powerful. The third person references seemed odd when only on my first listen. When I viewed the DVD the device made perfect dramatic sense, given that this story is being re-lived from the outside by the Boy/Angel(s). As a straight medieval story these references wouldn’t work, but it is more than that, the story is being experienced from the viewpoint of the (modern) Angels and the piece considers what is a text and what kind of power does it have, etc., so it makes sense that sometimes the dialogue sounds like lines third-person narrated text being read aloud rather than spoken in the first person by the characters themselves.

      For me, Written on Skin was thrilling and disturbing. It made me think and feel, when all too often contemporary opera just makes me think.

      • MontyNostry says:

        I can imagine the piece and the production, with all their conceits, work better on the small screen than in the theatre, but I was so irritated by it when I saw it at Covent Garden that I can’t face the DVD. I like the basic premise of the opera, the music certainly isn’t unpleasant, and the show was very well executed, but its chilly nombrilism was just too much for me.

    • papopera says:

      La Bohême has been performed for 118 years since its première in 1896. Do you think this “powerful work” will still be heard in the year 2132? Probably promptly forgotten by the year 2020.

      • MontyNostry says:

        I think there is quite a bandwagon rolling for George Benjamin, papopera, so who knows.

        • Poison Ivy says:

          Here are two very snotty reviews of La Boheme’s premiere in New York:

          From W.J. Henderson:
          —————--
          And the music? That, too, is clever, but it is less so than the book. In the score we find ourselves on very familiar ground. There is an abundance of melody, and there are many twistings of rhythm and harmonic disjointings. But we have heard them all before. Mascagni, and Leoncavallo have not labored for naught. The melody of Puccini is fluent and at times he sings the note of human passion. But for the most part he is too fond of making a pretty sound to speak in the convincing accent. The song is too polished, the speech too polite, for the full exposition of the characters of these Bohemians. They wear their hearts upon their sleeves, these people, and they are undisciplined hearts. They should revel in their own passions. But they are always singing themselves out to us in pretty tunes. What will you have? We are writing a grand opera. If at the end of the second act the dramatic situation entirely comic, suggests the finale of Offenbachanalian music, shall we yield and be dramatically honest at the expense of genuine grand opera finale, as if we were in the third act of “Aida.” The public will cry “Bravo,” and the critics will not discern the trickery of it. And “Bravo” the public does cry, in spite of the incongruity of the thing. For the public does not study the text.
          ———--

          And then from Henry Krehbiel:
          ———-
          “La Bohème is foul in subject and fulminant, but futile, in its music. Its heroine is a twin sister of the woman of the camellias, whose melodious death puts such a delightfully soothing balm upon our senses that we forget to weep in Verdi’s opera. But Mimi is fouler than Camille, alias Violetta, and Puccini (sic) has not been able to administer the palliative which lies in Verdi’s music.

      • Cicciabella says:

        Unlike Cassandra, I haven’t been cursed with the gift of prophesy, papopera. I like this work and would want to see/hear it again. Only time will tell if it’s a keeper.

      • Henry Holland says:

        That was said about Die Soldaten (premiered in 1965) and Lear (1978), “nobody will want to hear *that* in a few years!” but guess what, they’re performed more often now than they ever have been. New productions of the Zimmerman open in Munich in May and at the Komische in Berlin in June, a revival of the Reimann opens in Hamburg in May. etc.

        Most of Handel’s operas went unperformed for 150 years, so predicting what’s going to be done 118 years from now isn’t very promising. That’s assuming, of course that opera even exists at the level it’s at now or that we exist as a species in 118 years!

        Happy 96th birthday to Die Gezeichneten as well.

  • whatever says:

    anyone know if there are plans to produce this opera in north America?