LENOX — Successful, serious contemporary operas are exceedingly rare in today’s classical music world, but the composer George Benjamin and the playwright Martin Crimp have created one in “Written on Skin.” The work premiered to great acclaim last summer at the Aix-en-Provence Festival and has made the rounds to several European opera houses, arriving on Monday night at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall for its US premiere as the culminating event in this year’s Festival of Contemporary Music.
On its surface it is an opera, brimming with beauty and violence, about the emancipatory power of art. Adapted from a 13th-century Provencal legend, the plot centers on a brutal feudal lord, referred to only as the Protector, who commissions a gifted artist to create an illuminated manuscript that celebrates his beneficence, to be written, like all books of the time, on animal skin. But the presence of the artist, referred to only as Boy, and the strange power of his art, awaken the sensual and spiritual longings of the Protector’s long-subjugated wife, Agnès. They
fall in love and the Protector exacts uncommonly gruesome revenge.