Unusual for a new opera, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin arrived in New York with its reputation preceding it. It has been making the European rounds since 2012 and has been praised to the skies almost everywhere. Its three Lincoln Center Festival performances last week marked its untimely staged US debut.
And it’s hard to imagine that Written on Skin could have been developed and premiered by an American opera company. Certainly not, at least, by one of the behemoths. Martin Crimp’s libretto is a simple story which becomes complex in its telling; it doesn’t have a celebrity historical personality as its protagonist, isn’t based on a hit film or book, and makes no clear claim to cultural importance. The subject isn’t, like many American operas, aggressively checking off boxes like genres suggested by Netflix. (Cold Mountain? Hmmm, Literary Fiction Set in the Civil War With Strong Female Characters.)
Written on Skin is instead purposefully elliptical. It’s filled with symbols, fragmented narrative frames, and characters speaking in the third person. Its score is, though at times lyrical, rather thornier than the film music style which has become most popular in American premieres. It has also eclipsed most if not all of those works in its acclaim and popularity.
George Benjamin (music) and Martin Crimp (libretto), Written on Skin. US staged premiere, Lincoln Center Festival at the Koch Theater, 8/15/2015. Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by Alan Gilbert, production directed by Katie Mitchell with sets and costumes by Vicki Mortimer, lights by Jon Clark , cast included Barbara Hannigan (Agnès), Christopher Purves (The Protector), Tim Mead (Angel 1/The Boy), Victoria Simmonds (Angel 2/Marie), Robert Murray (Angel 3/John)
Written on Skin’s central plot is a simple, tragic Medieval love triangle between a woman named Agnès, her controlling husband, “The Protector,” and a scribe, the Boy, who the Protector commissions to create a book about the family. The action, however, is witnessed by a group of angels, who appear in contemporary dress. The Boy starts off as one of these angels himself. He finishes the story, after his scribe self has been murdered by the jealous husband, by describing the final scene not as an action but as one of the illuminations in the volume–a volume which, due to the scribe’s death, will never be complete.
The characters often speak in the third person, describing their actions as they perform them. This further blurs the boundary between enacted story and narrated story–the plot is both literally written on skin (that is, the animal skin parchment used for the scribe’s book) and the bodies of the characters. The set has two levels, the right half representing the Protector’s house and the right half a modern office or lab, where angels (credited as “Angel Archivists”) dispassionately examine a codex. This runs parallel to the main action and largely in the background.
The opera, then, presents itself as anachronistic, drawing attention to the space between today and its characters. The angels are a Greek chorus, for the most part witnesses rather than active participants. Crimp’s libretto frequently mentions the parking lot that will later occupy the place of the Protector and Agnès’s house.
In some ways, however, Written on Skin’s frame narratives have some commonalities with other new operas. Consider Yardbird, which premiered in June. It presented itself as a coda, taking place after its protagonist’s death. It relies on Charlie Parker’s established reputation for greatness rather than arguing for it. Or consider Oscar, which ended with the enshrinement of its subject, Oscar Wilde, in a gallery of great artists. In comparison, the frame narrative of Written on Skin is more sophisticated and less overdetermined. But the common thread is a fixation on endings, on art–poetry, music, a book–that will endure after its creator is gone. Mortality and death is a strange obsession for new art, but opera suffers from incurable lateness.
For Written on Skin, this is not only a matter of libretto. Like the music of his previous opera, Into the Little Hill, Benjamin’s score is ghostly and foreboding. (I remember seeing Into the Little Hill in concert in Ojai, where the creepy Pied Piper story was accompanied by the chirping of crickets in the dusk.) The orchestra is not small, but he resists the lushness of the full string section, preferring percussive, dry textures and unearthly sounds like the bass clarinet and the whistle of a wooden flute’s upper range. (Alan Gilbert’s conducting was, as always, unassertive, but the balances were excellent.) Alone, the orchestra at times makes some very loud statements, but when accompanying the singers the textures are very spare, making the words unusually clear. His conjunct, middle-range vocal lines also enhance the text’s comprehensibility; he avoids the jagged intervals of most modernist opera and only occasionally reach the extremes of vocal range.
The most compelling character in the opera is Agnès, who begins as “the Woman” but, partway through, insists that she be called by her name. Female authorship is one of the opera’s most compelling themes–near the beginning, we are told that we are going to a time when “women were property,” but Agnès insists on her name, insists on the potential for a realistic portrayal in the scribe’s book, and ultimately insists on her own pleasure. This is even though, as it is repeatedly stated, she is unable to read—and, therefore, unable to write, here equated with control over the story.
Similarly, Barbara Hannigan brings a soulful performance to this this somewhat chilly work. Starting off very introverted, she makes Agnès’s yearning gradually more and more overt. She can be remarkably expressive with very simple vocal phrases–and she’s been singing this opera everywhere, so I suppose familiarity is a good part of it. Her voice is silky, often without vibrato, and not too big, particularly at the lower end, but always audible. Christopher Purves is a gruff and intimidating Protector, moving smoothly from an edgy, dark bass-baritone to a yell. As the Angel and the Boy, Tim Mead sings with a clear, pure countertenor which also has considerable volume, and he never makes the character too obvious.
Written on Skin has many themes like this which are suggested rather than hammered, and it is far more interesting because it is so ambiguous. What are the modern people finding in the manuscript? Do they represent us? From what future are the characters narrating their own actions? You could try to answer these questions but the opera leaves the open, and that mystery is part of what makes it complex and interesting than most operas. It isn’t realistic in its words or in its presentation but something more elusive.
Katie Mitchell’s production is, it seems to me, inseparable from the music and words. I mean, I have no idea what the opera would look like without the mostly silent contemporary spectators, I don’t know if they’re in Crimp’s text or were Mitchell’s creation, and it all fits together quite seamlessly. Vicki Mortimer’s detailed set is brilliantly lit by Jon Clark, with each space delineated with light (the medieval portions warm, the modern ones cool). (The wood scene is represented by a tree in an interior space–within the opera this means that the woods is still well within the Protector’s domain, but it also made me wonder if the set could be repurposed for Die Walküre with the left side as Valhalla.)
Written on Skin, however, may be something of a victim of its own hype. It is a very good work, and one with the canny pacing and compelling story to have more popular appeal than its idiom and complexity may otherwise suggest. I think it is more accessible than the somewhat similar L’amour de loin, for example. But this is not a work which seems to have been written with the purpose of saving opera, and it seems unfair to ask that of it. I mean to say that I don’t think it’s fair to ask if Written on Skin lived up to its acclaim. What that acclaim suggests to me, however, is that we should look beyond neo-Romantic scores, realism, bio-opera, and “relatability,” and think more about what mystery, symbolism, and poetry can offer new opera.
Photos copyright Richard Termine.