George Benjamin: Written on Skin / Aix-en-Provence Festival – Live relay at Ciné Lumière – 14 July 2012

17 Jul

There has been a lot of commenting and high hopes for  George Benjamin’s new opera (co-produced by Festival d’Aix-en-Provence with the Nederlandse Opera, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino) and I was compelled to pop into the Institut Français to check out the live broadcast from Aix.

The story is based on a medieval Occitan legend from the 12th century. It encompasses the arrival of a manuscript illuminator and how the domestic balance gets upturned via amorous approaches and finally murder. Structured in three parts, it lasts around 100 minutes without interval.

The cast have taken on a mammoth challenge, especially Barbara Hannigan who has the very physical and vocally demanding role of Agnès.  She is matched by Christopher Purves’ macho presence and rock solid singing. Bejun Mehta’s presence and singing did not excite me as much . The work has a series of duets amongst the three main protagonists which become the central spine of the dramatic development. The all pervading darkness in both subject matter, interpretation and musical language may put off some people, but it is ultimately a very challenging, accomplished piece of work. The writing is very singer friendly and there are some stunning final tutti where the soloist and the orchestra become one. Part of the excitement of the piece is the sheer physical nature of the singing required and the amount of committed acting. The directing by Katie Mitchell may not be to everyone’s taste, as the ambiguities of flashbacks and past/present interrelationships become too frequently blurred, and also requiring a lot of awkward on stage costume swaps.  The boy may be the pivotal character, but Hannigan is the centre of attention, with her fragile appearance she seems to live in this world of feudal power and intense, internalised passion that looks for an outlet. Her frequent outbursts are powerful and affecting.

The three central characters are ushered/attended by Marie and John who take on a role of the peripheral action that adds more depth/detail and help with the scene transitions. Sang with great gusto by Rebecca Jo Loeb and  Allan Clayton.

Overall it is an intense, dystopian world full of anxieties and co-dependencies. An intriguing mix of the medieval and the contemporary. Potentially some of the most darkly sexy opera this side of Lulu. Do go and see it at any of the touring venues or watch the archived stream on Medici.tv  (annoyingly not available in the UK). I will most definitely book for it’s Royal Opera staging on 8 | 11 | 16 | 18 | 22 Mar 2013.

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