Benjamin: Written on Skin

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, London, 11th March 2013 4.5 stars

Written on SkinIn a 2010 article, the composer Christopher Fox suggested that successful models for the composition of opera--for the operatic marriage of drama, words and music--'grew out of a radical re-thinking of theatrical convention; new subjects demanded new dramatic modes'. In other words, in answer to the common complaint from opera sceptics who decry the perceived lack of dramatic realism in characters constantly singing and in music constantly playing, composers such as Mozart and Wagner found novel and inventive ways to create a sense of necessity in the form, such that the musical design itself emerges organically out of the drama, and vice versa. This hard-to-achieve organicism creates a sense that the characters in these operas somehow must sing, and that the dramatic world of the production is always-already saturated in music.

Continuing in the same article, Fox asked, 'How many operas of the last 100 years have carried on this tradition of innovation? No more than a handful: Alban Berg's Wozzeck, Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach…it's not a list I find easy to extend'. Whether we accept Fox's criterion of dramatic necessity as a reliable indicator of the effectiveness of an opera or not, it is the case that his list would surely be extended with (composer) George Benjamin (composer), (playwright) Martin Crimp, and (director) Katie Mitchell's wonderfully-conceived new opera Written on Skin, which premiered to rave reviews at the Aix-en-Provence festival in July 2012, and last night began its short run at Covent Garden.

The new dramatic mode of Written on Skin sees the creative team responding elegantly to the story at the heart of the opera of a thirteenth-century Occitanian love triangle in which a 'Protector' commissions an illuminated manuscript about his life from a scribe, only for the scribe (the 'Boy') and the Protector's badly oppressed wife (the 'Woman'/Agnès) to fall in love (though that's putting an enigma mildly), by splitting the action between a modern office in which a book is likewise being compiled, and the dramatic action of the Medieval narrative. The splitting is achieved literally, with the front-facing stage being divided horizontally and laterally into four separate rooms, two for each temporal space. This latter description is more apt than you might think, since the actors in the modern setting often move in a rather convincing and uncannily slow motion, which adds further temporal and perspectival ambiguity to the piece. The theme of time--its circularity, its pockmarks, its sublimity, its rending force--is in fact at the heart of Written on Skin, with the other three main characters, the Angels, standing outside of time as commentators, historians, and seers, much in the manner of a Greek chorus.

A further splitting occurs within the main story itself. The three principal characters, played with utmost intensity and dedication by the great Barbara Hannigan (in the role of Agnés, on alternately grave and spitting form), the winningly un-silky countertenor Bejun Mehta (one of the Angels and the scribe/Boy), and the fearsome and brutish, though stricken, Christopher Purves (the Protector), speak often (and, implicitly, always) in the third person, narrating their own actions in appropriately neutral terms, e.g. 'The Protector wakes up...', or 'The Woman says...'. The Medieval narrative thus splits into action and auto-narration. The danger of this conceit is of course that it would end up feeling mannered, or that it would somehow stilt the drama, but in fact it works beautifully to elide the deliberately abstract, unrealistic thirteenth century setting both with the modern elements, and with the musical content of the opera more generally speaking, which serves as the medium of commentary for the characters and for the audience. The artifice of singing and of dramatic orchestral accompaniment is thus built into the very design of Written on Skin, which is artifice all the way down, and as a result doesn't feel in any of its elements artificial at all.

The tightness of dramatic construction (I should note the extremely effective division of the opera into 15 short scenes in three parts), the strength of the performances on the stage, and the finely-honed pit (where Benjamin was conducting his own score with aplomb) aside, the opera works so well, it seems to me, due to a fertile commingling of three key elements.

First, the simple expressiveness and sensitivity of Crimp's words allow a little poetry and punch into the narrative(s) at various key moments, as well as serving as extremely effective dramatic motors otherwise. Second, we have George Benjamin's wonderfully subtle and fluidly integrated music. That music moves skilfully from the burgeoning symbolism of Debussy-like sonorities in the first scenes, through richly-characterised short rhythmic interludes, into fully expressionistic, Straussian chromatic explosions on the one hand, and glass harmonica revenance on the other. In the closing scenes, his diverse musical palette recalls and updates Britten in its mixed musical language of floating post-tonality and freshly-wrought atonality, which serves dramatic purpose at every step.

Third, the opera taken as a dramatic whole of music, staging, narrative, and setting, works so well due to its willingness to stay on the side of the queer and the ambiguous, as it were, in realising its split narrative. Although, in the manner of David Lynch, the strange linearity of the piece might make sense if we were to conceptualise it along two narrative lines, as I have done above, also in the manner of Lynch--and aptly here, on the theme of temporal ambiguity--Written on Skin deforms this clarifying interpretation such that the relative stability of each temporal space is undermined. Though the two distinct temporal spaces are easily enough perceived, we are never quite sure of their precise relationship to each other, nor are we sure of the ground and reality of each space in itself. Besides the slow motion movements, a key moment in this respect occurs towards the close, when suddenly the modern language of 'airports' and 'shopping malls' is introduced directly into the Occitanian context.

Such a queering moment emblematises the achievement of Written on Skin, which stands as an enigmatic, strange, but nonetheless effective twenty-first century operatic achievement, freshly-minted and dramatically fresh at the same time.

By Stephen Graham

Photos: Royal Opera