By now you must have all heard the noises by the critics and any other blogging source about Written on Skin. Having watched the cinema broadcast from Aix-en-Provence last July. I was well primed for the live performance and I have to admit I was annoyed by a totally different aspect than the cinema experience.
The work is based on a 12th century Occitan legend telling a story of the Protector commissioning an illustrated manuscript to memorialise his magnificence and wealth. The illustrator (the Boy) is involved in a sexual relationship with the bright, repressed and illiterate Agnès, the wife of his client. The opera explores that journey of self discovery through sexual liberation. Add a sprinkling of angels and her sister and you have the makings of a medieval themed noir film.
George Benjamin’s music is clothed in transparent veils full of subtlety and in many ways a little bit too polite. Like many composers of his generation the shadow of Benjamin Britten still looms large. He doesn’t go for the all out confrontation with the audience’s ears as so many of his contemporaries. This soft and friendly sound must be part of the work’s success and spread across Europe over 2012 and 2013. It won’t scare anyone with its avant-gardist indulgence. Within its politeness it miraculously manages to deliver 95 minutes of gripping drama. His vocal writing fluctuates from a pedestrian parlando style for the Protector and the Angels to the much more ornamented lines for Agnès and the Boy. Especially their love making duet in Scene Two builds sexual tension with a raw visceral power. Just don’t ask me what the homoerotic attraction between the Protector and the Boy was all about.
Katie Michell’s direction seemed terribly stiff and hell-bent on adding modish touches to the piece. The many close ups of the cinema broadcast amplified this stylistic mishmash. Live it does work much better with the split level boxed set creating a suitably claustrophobic setting for this domestic drama. There is an irritating insistence on slo mo pacing by the actors in the lab/archive section of the set. In a couple of instances it adds a filmic texture but it wears very thin by overuse. As long as the presentation does not remind you of a mashup of the Medieval and High Tech zones of the Crystal Maze you are in a good place. One decision that appears dictated by the starchy libretto was the singers in scenes being physically manipulated and moved by the two angels. It just seems genuinely awkward and an unimaginative way to show a heavenly intervention . Also having the singers announcing their entrances and the profuse mentions in the third person are irritating and create gaps in the storytelling that appear capricious and anti-theatrical.
The stellar performances by the cast and orchestra elevated the evening to a memorable occasion. Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves (save for a couple of rough times in two short sotto voce passages) and Bejun Mehta gave their all with smooth vocal delivery and total immersion in their characters. The tension between sex and violence pents up to the inevitable conclusion when the powerful Protector, after losing his control to jealousy, killing the Boy and serving his heart to his unfaithful wife. Instead of being melodramatic, the atmosphere is dark and agitated. But of course the main question for me was how relevant the piece is to the 21st century audience. Dressing the angels in lab coats and putting them in a sterile set does not make for innovation or modernity, the final result has a rather dusty feel.
The achievement of the work and its overall musical beauty is undeniable but colour me unimpressed overall by the moddish staging, the stunted libretto with its profusion of personal pronouns. Benjamin does write a great vocal line but somehow I was left wondering what impact a much more flowing libretto or an altogether more recent source would have had. Trying to bridge the gap of 9 centuries makes for an unconvincing offering that can only stand if we abstract the story away from its specifics to relate to our universal experiences. Of course I am not asking for ludicrous set ups like Judith Weir’s kebab van ladden Miss Fortune but still waiting for the day when a contemporary composer will not seek refuge in the comfort of the past and create something new and about our own times. Metaphors and allusions are useful and stimulating but this avoidance to engage with contemporaneous subjects makes a lot of contemporary opera seem as old as the 19th century standard rep.
Curtain call video from a jaunty angle!