Review: Written on Skin

Helen Wallace reviews George Benjamin's radical new opera

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Written on SkinHow often can you say of a new work that for 90 gripping minutes an audience collectively held its breath?  Written on Skin, George Benjamin and Martin Crimp’s new opera, playing at the Royal Opera House, is a quietly radical masterpiece with a long, long life stretching ahead of it.

The drama is timeless and yet absolutely of our time, drawing on the medieval French troubadour ‘legend of the eaten heart’ to explore themes of identity and sexuality, man’s gifts of creation and destruction, the repositories of memory, their power to change and distort. Its subtle shifts in time perspective reveal a rich trove of pregnant, carefully unresolved ideas: no wonder a revival is already planned and opera houses round the world are crying out to stage it.

Written on Skin is intensely erotic, and, unusually, it is the female, Agnès – the mesmerising soprano Barbara Hannigan - who generates, controls and luxuriates in her own eroticism.  This is particularly striking given the bare outline of the story: a cruel Protector (bass Christopher Purves on formidable form) invites a young artist (possibly an angel, ethereal Bejun Mehta) into his home to record his achievements and property; his young wife falls in love with him, and discovers her individuality. Her husband kills the artist, and feeds her the heart. She leaps to her death from an upstairs window.

Written on SkinCrimp has taken an age-old tale of woman-as-victim (‘invent her, strip her, blame her for everything’ nicely sums up the story since Eve) and turned it on its head. With the artist’s assistance (‘can you invent another woman?’) her burgeoning and sensuous sense of self gradually fills the stage until her suicidal leap turns into triumphant flight, as she rises, running in slow motion, up a staircase.  It’s a twist on Tosca I never expected to see.

Written on SkinBenjamin wrote each part for these singers, and they rise to it spectacularly. So what of his score? So perfectly do words and music entangle themselves, it seems wrong to judge it separately. It can – and will - be compared to Debussy’s Pelléas in that here we have an exquisitely sensitised tissue of sonorities responding so precisely to each poetic sung line, they become one; bass viol, glass harmonica and mandolins add their eery magic to muted, dream-like music, which is always rhythmically alert. While Agnès speaks with the Boy, their voices overlap in a highly naturalistic way in which people interrupt each other, but here creating ravishing harmonies; the clarinet catches Agnes’s note and it blooms in the darkness as she sings ‘Come to me!’. Violence is just outside the window (‘why is that man picking up a baby on the point of a stick?’) and it seethes and explodes out in raucous brass between scenes. The line: ‘Her eyelashes scrape the pillow, click, click’ encapsulates the way Benjamin seems to put the orchestra under a microscope.

He talks of Crimp’s deftly poetic language ‘which lifts a few inches off the ground and that’s where there is space for music to enter.’ He enters it as an illuminator would, colouring, emphasising, gilding with minute precision, and yet giving the singers lavishly lyrical, long-breathed lines or, when needed, a form of simple sprechgesang.

This production may baffle some. Martin Crimp observes in the programme that director Katie Mitchell ‘had to create her own solution to justify the characters narrating themselves’, something that Crimp found intuitive. Sadly, this means she loads the stage with two strip-lit laboratories, the paraphernalia of archeologists and archivists, doubling as ‘coldly fascinated’ angels, the idea being they are ‘recreating’ and investigating these corpses from the past, now lying under a car park. It was a distraction: my eyes never left the single, subtly-lit room where the drama unfolds.

'Written on Skin' is on at the Royal Opera House until 22 March

Photos: Royal Opera House/Stephen Cummiskey

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