Benjamin: Written on Skin

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: George Benjamin
LABELS: Opus Arte
ALBUM TITLE: Benjamin: Written on Skin
WORKS: Written on Skin
PERFORMER: Christopher Purves, Barbara Hannigan, Bejun Mehta; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/George Benjamin; dir. Katie Mitchell

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This is an outstanding release in every way. The scenario of Written on Skin is a straightforward story of illicit love, set in the time of the troubadours, but knowingly and constantly viewed from the 21st century, the characters stylised in a way that paradoxically makes them all the more believable. The belligerent Protector unwittingly sets his young and oppressed wife, Agnes, on the path to self-liberation when he invites a boy into their household to create that most precious of objects, an illuminated book. Yet this summary barely even begins to capture the emotional and psychological richness of this journey or its immense expressive impact.

Martin Crimp’s acutely observed text and scenario is masterful in the way it distinguishes, then elides present and past, observer and participant. Benjamin’s extraordinary music is breathtaking in its lightly worn compositional virtuosity, painting his musical colours with the finest of brushes with not a note out of place in a luminous and deft score. The cast is sensational, with countertenor Bejun Mehta beguiling as the Boy, and baritone Christopher Purves full of brutish pride and cruelty as the Protector, while soprano Barbara Hannigan deserves all the superlatives in the dictionary for her portrayal of Agnes’s awakening from repression to sexual discovery to beyond mania.

The camerawork succinctly reflects the principal focus of the multi-part staging while providing enough sense of the whole conception, the extra definition of Blu-ray proving beneficial for the subtleties of this superb score. Make no mistake: this is a true masterpiece.

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Christopher Dingle