OPERA NEWS - Written on Skin
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In Review > North America

Written on Skin

Mostly Mozart Festival

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Christopher Purves (The Protector), Barbara Hannigan (Agnès) and Tim Mead (Angel 1/Boy) in the Mostly Mozart presentation of George Benjamin's opera Written on Skin
© Richard Termine 2015
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Barbara Hannigan as Agnès and Tim Mead as Angel 1/Boy
© Richard Termine 2015

Tuesday night August 11 was the highly anticipated U.S. stage premiere of George Benjamin’s phenomenally successful opera Written On Skin, the first of three performances at the David H. Koch Theater, as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival. This production, a transplant from the Aix-on-Provence Festival where the opera had its world premiere in 2012, was also the ambitious maiden voyage for the new Lincoln Center-New York Philharmonic Opera Initiative. As it turns out, Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp’s gripping medieval tale of lust, adultery, revenge, cannibalism, and murder — a shining exemplar of contemporary musical originality on CD — is thrillingly dramatic onstage.

Baritone Christopher Purves, who plays the Protector, a wealthy, self-satisfied landowner, and soprano Barbara Hannigan, who portrays his alluring and (initially) submissive wife Agnès, are both veterans of the original Aix production, which has received several subsequent showings in Europe. Purves, commanding in both voice and physical presence, approaches the role with the same sense of ownership that his character shows toward his material possessions, among which he includes his wife. His potent, subtly menacing performance is impressively varied, spanning a wide range of dynamics, emotions, and timbres; he’s particularly riveting in moments when his character can barely get his words out at all.

Hannigan, for her part, is a sheer wonder. Mostly silent and clearly miserable in the first scene, her desire for erotic liberation is palpable as soon as she enters the studio of the Boy, an artist and writer whom the Protector has invited into their home while he creates a flattering illumination in parchment of the Protector’s life. As Agnès tauntingly urges the Boy to draw “a real woman” (that is, one more like her), she can barely contain her seething desire. Hannigan generates a virtual hurricane of erotic self-discovery, peaking in her triumphant, high-leaping utterances of “I am Agnès!” at the climax of their onstage lovemaking. Tim Mead as the Boy, possessed of a gratifyingly full countertenor voice free of artifice, clearly understands the impending doom they face, but is powerless to resist Hannigan’s combustibility. 

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Simmonds, Murray, Hannigan, Purves and Mead in Katie Mitchell's production at Mostly Mozart
© Richard Termine 2015

Victoria Simmonds (another Skin veteran) and Robert Murray play Agnès’s sister and her husband, she amusingly full of judgmental patter, and he urgently trying to shush her in front of their host. Simmonds also has an impressive turn as the Boy’s alleged lover, a scenario the Boy fabricates for the Protector in order to cover up the actual affair he’s having with Agnès. Simmonds is vocally agile and convincingly inflamed.

In director Katie Mitchell’s illuminating, kinetic production, the three Angels (doubled by Mead, Simmonds and Murray), narrating this story from a twenty-first century perspective, operate from a staging area on the left side of the two-tiered frame, while the main action takes place on the right. During musical interludes they busily reset the stage, place props, and serve as dressers for the principals. It’s as if they control the storytelling but are powerless to stop the inevitable tragedy. Vicki Mortimer’s striking set also features a large white stairwell on the far right, which Agnès ascends in mesmerizing slow motion in the last scene, presumably to take her own life before her husband can kill her.

Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert led the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which also accompanied the original production and can be heard on the CD recording. Gilbert showed complete mastery of this complex, fearsomely dense score, and seemed to conjure the turbulent musical tapestry like a sorcerer, from its wild orchestral frenzies and swoons to its subtle, insinuating filigree. The instrumentalists played with glowing intensity and blinding precision. Every note in the score and word in Crimp’s resourceful, unexpected libretto seemed perfectly calibrated to lend urgent drama to this spellbinding tale, and the result was thoroughly gripping from start to finish. —Joshua Rosenblum 

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