> Opera and Oratorio
Written on Skin
Hannigan, Loeb; Mehta, Purves, A. Clayton; Mahler Chamber Orchestra,
Benjamin. English text. Nimbus Records NI 5885/6 (2)
Written on Skin, George Benjamin's first full-length opera, with a libretto by Martin Crimp based on an anonymous thirteenth-century story, is an exciting example of how imaginative, sure-handed composers are reinventing the genre for the twenty-first century. The opera preserves the medieval setting of the original story, but the musical language is fully modernist — there's no tip of the hat to the thirteenth century via neo-medievalism or any specifically musical techniques. The remoteness of the setting is implied through various distancing effects: for one, the main characters frequently narrate their own actions and dialogue (i.e., "What d'you want, says the Boy"). Frequent, skillful overlapping of the sung lines contributes further to this effect, subverting naturalism and implying a faraway, unfamiliar context.
The story concerns a wealthy, self-satisfied landowner (the Protector) who hires a young illustrator (the Boy) to create a book illuminating the story of the Protector's exemplary life. The Boy moves in, sets to work, and soon falls into an affair with Agnès, the Protector's alluring wife. The Protector discovers the betrayal, kills the Boy, and in an appalling penultimate scene, feeds his unsuspecting wife the dead Boy's heart for dinner. The title refers to the way manuscripts were created pre-Gutenberg and also implies the erotic and violent content of the opera.
Despite his large orchestra of sixty — mostly standard instrumentation with the addition of bass viol and glass harmonica — Benjamin's score is frequently lean and austere. Deploying an often harsh but always expressive harmonic vocabulary, the composer tells his story with deliberate, thoroughly absorbing pacing. There are overtones of Britten, Janácˇek, Debussy and Berg, but Benjamin's musical language is nonetheless powerfully individual. He differentiates his dissonances with skillful calibration and provides obvious contrasts in texture and rhythm, all of which set the scenes, as well as the characters, apart from each other.
As the Protector, Christopher Purves wields a baritone that is like the proverbial iron fist within a velvet glove, and he boasts finely chiseled diction all across his wide dynamic range. During his scenes, menace gleams brightly from both his voice and the orchestra. Purves is especially compelling when, seething slowly in pain and rage, he reads aloud the "secret page" from the Boy's book that recounts his wife's affair in great explicit detail. Barbara Hannigan brings clarity and beauty to the demanding role of Agnès, but she can also erupt with ferocious intensity: her final scene ("Nothing I ever eat /… will ever take the taste of that Boy's heart / out of this body") is an aria of rage, defiance and insanity that jumps up and down to the extremes of her range. As the Boy, countertenor Bejun Mehta skillfully modulates his tone from icy cold to warm and creamy, making his character simultaneously creepy and captivating. Together, Hannigan and Mehta are tremendously effective in the love scenes, which are musically economical yet roiling with passion. When Agnès and the Boy are first drawn to each other, time seems to stop, as the music rotates hypnotically around them like a mobile, wordlessly expressing the growing erotic tension between them.
Rebecca Jo Loeb and Allan Clayton appear briefly but memorably as Agnès's insinuating sister Marie and her disapproving husband, John. Loeb, Clayton and Mehta also double as a trio of twenty-first-century Angels who contextualize and comment on the action throughout, with great musical and verbal wit.
Benjamin expertly conducts the superb Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which is a full participant in the tumultuous proceedings. This is a live recording of the impressively polished premiere performance at the 2012 Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, staged by Katie Mitchell.
The opera has received wide attention since then. Written on Skin received its British premiere in March 2013, when the Mitchell production was presented at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, with Benjamin conducting. Purves, Hannigan and Mehta again headed the cast. The opera was first presented in the U.S. in August 2013, in concert form, at Tanglewood, with Benjamin conducting the Tanglewood Music Center Fellows.
Benjamin's intriguing, vividly colored Duet for Piano and Orchestra, featuring the always-impressive pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, fills out the second disc.
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