Written on Skin at Lincoln Center

How was I to know that the
critics and audiences (not just in Aix, but on a dozen other stages since)
would acclaim the new work, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, as
the greatest opera written in the past half century?

Recently I had a chance to partially redress the error by attending the US
stage premiere of the same production, with two-thirds of the same cast, at the
Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center on August 13, where Benjamin is
composer-in-residence. The opera is everything it is cracked up to be. It is a
masterpiece that will surely be performed and appreciated a century from now.

Martin Crimp’s dark libretto, fifteen scenes in an intense 90 minutes with
no intermission, is a sophisticated meditation on the story of Adam and Eve.
Though characters simultaneously adopt multiple temporal and narrative
perspectives in a post-modern manner—for example, by having characters speak
about themselves in the third person, and angels serve as both narrators and
characters—the basic plot rests on the oldest and simplest of operatic plot
devices: the love triangle.

In the Dark Ages, a wealthy older man, the Protector, has a younger wife,
AgnËs. He invites a Boy, an angel in disguise, to come live with them in order
to create an illuminated manuscript. The Boy’s efforts fascinate both man and
wife: the former because it offers religious knowledge and the latter because
it offers carnal knowledge. The Protector eventually learns that the Boy is
teaching AgnËs to be erotically self-aware: it hardly matters whether this
occurs through an actual affair, pornographic suggestion, or both; or whether
the angel seduces the woman, vice versa, or both. The love triangle becomes
modestly homosexual as well as heterosexual, since the Protector also appears
attracted to the Boy, albeit far more ambivalently than his wife.

Eventually the Protector can no longer bear such threats to the established
moral order. He kills the Boy, rips out his heart, cooks it, and—in what he
believes to be the ultimate reassertion of paternal authority—orders AgnËs
to eat it. She obeys, but in a deeper sense defies her husband by proclaiming
that she will always love the “salty and sweet” taste of the Boy’s heart.
Then, in a final Pyrrhic victory over her husband, she takes her own life by
throwing herself from an upper balcony. These proceedings are intermittently
narrated by observing angels, who also enter and exit the scene as minor
characters. We do not, for example, witness AgnËs’s final fall. Rather, in
the final bars of the opera, the Boy (restored to angelic form) narrates the
vision of her floating body, surrounded by three angels, as if it were the
conclusion of his illuminated manuscript.

If the basic purpose of an operatic libretto is to create moments of tension
and resolution that spark dramatic excitement, provoke human sympathy and,
above all, fuel musical elaboration, Crimp succeeds brilliantly. Angels and
manuscripts may seem abstract, intellectual and fussy, but they are in the end
just plot devices. The essential action remains visceral and concrete, focused
on three sympathetically and convincingly human characters. Throughout, the
text remains complex and evocative, yet extremely terse and surprisingly
intelligible, even when sung primarily by extremely high voices.

One cannot imagine three more committed singers in the leads. Two of
them—Barbara Hannigan as AgnËs and Christopher Purves as The
Protector—created their roles. Hannigan may well be the greatest singing
actress on the operatic stage today, not something often said of a specialist
in the contemporary lyric coloratura soprano repertoire. Yet she possesses an
instrument of clear tone and, above all, uncannily perfect intonation, which
she employs in an uncompromisingly rigorous, musical, passionate and
intelligent way. She is a compelling physical character on stage, further
enhanced by her clear diction. She rises to the big moments, such as the
stunning final portion of the second section of the opera. Overall, this is a
riveting portrayal of a woman transformed by knowledge from timidity through
passion to resistance.

Christopher Purves is an equally dramatic Protector, believably gruff,
clever and strong. From a musical perspective, however, I felt at times that
the role was being growled rather than sung, and was less technically solid
than it might have been, particularly at the extremes of the vocal range. (This
was true also vis-‡-vis tapes of his previous performances, so perhaps
indisposition played a role.) As this opera enters the canon, perhaps future
baritones will approach the role differently. One can imagine a great Verdian
with warmth yet steel and darkness in the voice bringing out a different side
of what is latent in this tortured character.

Countertenor Tim Mead sang sweetly as the Boy. Some critics disparaged his
diction, but I found him quite intelligible. Yet his voice seems to me more
boyish than manly, too much of a soprano and not quite enough of an alto, and
thus less compelling as the instrument of AgnËs’ sexual awakening. Bajun
Mehta, who created this role in Aix and sang it in a number of revivals, offers
much more vocal and dramatic menace, as befits the equivalent of the Snake in
the Garden of Eden. The other angels were strong, particularly Victoria
Simmonds who doubled as Marie.

This set of performance revived the production directed by Katie Mitchell,
seen originally at the Aix premiere. In general, the stage action was
exceptionally persuasive and enhanced core themes of the plot—in part due to
the excellent singing actors—while the set design sometimes tipped over into
the fussy and unnecessarily self-important mannerisms of modern
Regietheater. As is quite the rage in Europe these days, Vicki
Mortimer’s sets employ a “Hollywood Squares” design: the stage is divided
into boxes with different scenes. Most of the action takes place in the largest
rectangle to the lower right: here is the medieval world of the main plot,
where Jon Clark’s brilliantly subtle lighting shifts highlighted shifts in
mood and perspective. (Trees trunks growing through the floor do, however,
suggest further symbolic meanings.) Two boxes to the left, one above the other,
are reserved for the observing angels, who are high-tech spirits with computers
and Ikea office furniture. To the far right is a narrow stairwell used only by
AgnËs in the opera’s final moments, as she climbs to her death. And to the
upper right is a dark room full of trees that the main characters shun: is this
the Garden of Eden, from which all the characters are irremediably estranged?
One wonders whether that is the ideal place to which AgnËs seeks ultimately to
return, or the purgatory from which she seeks to escape.

Engaging though its libretto, singing and staging may be, Written on
will enter the operatic canon above all due to its superb orchestral
score. Benjamin’s writing is pleasantly free of the kitschy and monotonous
devices that weigh down most contemporary opera. It is not an “easy
listening” score in which intermittent atonal flourishes separate numbers
derived from jazz, pop, traditional American or ethnic Chinese riffs. Nor is it
a minimalist opera, in which miniscule bits of musical material are stretched
to the breaking point on the rack of repetition. This is music that stands on
its own: it is thickly textured and finely crafted, acknowledging yet
transcending the past. Not since Britten has anyone written for operatic
orchestra with such sensuous beauty, emotional impact, compositional rigor and
mature self-restraint.

To be sure, gestures from 20th century modernist opera permeate Written
in Skin
. Benjamin’s restrained orchestration and way with words remind
one of Debussy and Britten. The technique of presenting mythology
simultaneously from the perspective of a narrator and a participant recalls not
only Britten Rape of Lucretia, but also Stravinsky’s Odepus
. As the mind of the Protector unravels, tutti orchestral chords and
whining woodwinds recall famous passages from Berg’s
Wozzeck—though Benjaminhas purged all of that opera’s
overt Romanticism. At various points, specific harmonies and timbres evoke
BartÛk, Kod·ly, Jan·?ek, Ligeti, Birtwistle, Stockhausen and a long French
tradition ending with Benjamin’s own teacher Messiaen.

Yet Written in Skin is no pastiche. Just as Mozart drew on Haydn,
Gluck, Bach and others to forge his own distinct style, Benjamin has done so to
craft a coherent 21st century musical language modern-day Mozartian
in its spare, elegant beauty. A detailed analysis of Benjamin’s use of color,
rhythm and harmony is a task better left to future dissertation writers—or at
least those with access to an orchestral score—but here are a few
impressions. Though most of the music is understated, Benjamin achieves an
exceptional range of orchestral color, deployed with utmost refinement. While
he realizes of this color through the use of unusual, often neo-medieval
instruments—gamba, (faux) mandolins, glass harmonica and a wide range of
percussion—generally he employs conventional, but spare and wide-ranging
instrumentation. The most common texture involves simple, often open string
intervals punctuated by brief melodic fragments in the woodwinds and muted
brass, especially trumpets. The bottom of the orchestra (notably bass clarinet
and double basses with a downward extension) is exceptionally active, at times
lending the music an ominous quality without overweighting it. Much of the
music seems to float in space, enveloping the singers, or is sensuous and
serpentine, wrapping itself around them. One particularly effective example is
the duet between the AgnËs and the Boy, whose voices intertwine suggestively
with orchestral lines. While Benjamin is often compared to Debussy, his music
generally has more rhythmic impulse than Pelleas, yet without either a
repetitive beat or obvious popular music reference. This highly atmospheric
music effectively magnifies the shifting psychological moods of the singers,
and the effect induced on a sympathetic listener can range from extreme beauty
to heart-wrenching poignancy to repugnance. Occasionally the entire orchestra
erupts in a jagged, harsh fortissimo, highlighted with piccolo and high flutes,
but such passages rarely last. This varied orchestral texture, I find, comes
through much more compellingly live than on the many video and audio versions
that have circulated.

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra premiered this work at Aix. This is the second
time in a month I have heard this group, and both times I have come away
thinking there are no better chamber players anywhere in the world. Though
atonal, Benjamin’s intervals seem so perfectly judged that they benefit from
the spot-on intonation and subtle timbre such expert musicians provide. New
York Philharmonic conductor Alan Gilbert conductor led, tempering firm
precision with gentle sympathy.

Andrew Moravcsik

Cast and production information:

Christopher Purves, The Protector ; Barbara Hannigan, AgnËs ; Tim
Mead, Angel 1/The Boy; Victoria Simmonds, Angel 2/Marie ; Robert Murray, Angel
3/John ; David Alexander Parker, Laura Harling, Peter Hobday, and Sarah
Northgraves, Angel Archivists.

Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Alan Gilbert, conductor. Katie Mitchell,
director. Martin Crimp, text Vicki Mortimer, scenic and costume design. Jon
Clark, lighting design.

image_description=Scene from Written on Skin [Photo courtesy of Barbara Hannigan]
product_title=Written on Skin at Lincoln Center
product_by=A review by Andrew Moravcsik
product_id=Above: Scene from Written on Skin [Photo courtesy of Barbara Hannigan]