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.
Of course summaries likes these tend to conjure images of soapy melodrama, if only because so many contemporary operas have foundered on the shoals of their own attempts at accessibility. Not so here. Crimp’s crisp libretto purposefully sidesteps the conventions of operatic naturalism by embracing the artifice at the center of this art form. He does so by integrating a detached type of narration into the characters’ own vocal lines, so the Protector will actually sing “says the Protector” in the middle of a passage, and so forth. It’s of a piece with Crimp’s chronological sleight of hand as we are at once placed in the medieval world of this story, and clearly hearing it in our own, with present-day references fueling the fiery commentary provided by a chorus of Angels (about which more in a moment).
Benjamin has said in an interview that the “strangeness” of Crimp’s libretto created the necessary space for his own music, and the score is indeed a marvel, astonishing in its timbral precision and in its balance of flexibility and sweep, with moments of local drama set off against a meticulously integrated whole. As a composer Benjamin is known as a master colorist, but evidently inspired by the subject of medieval illumination, he has outdone himself here. By way of expanding the resources at his disposal, he spikes a mostly conventional orchestra with mandolins, a glass harmonica, and a viola da gamba, and deploys these instruments in key moments not as self-consciously exotic flourishes but as part of a wizardly, shimmering field of sound.
Written on Skin
His touch is light. Much of the time the orchestra hovers around the vocal lines like an aura, ever-shifting in its tint yet always transparent. Displays of the ensemble’s collective brawn are few but when they come, they release fierce degrees of accumulated tension, and on Monday night, with an excellent assembly of Tanglewood Music Center fellows playing under Benjamin’s own direction, these sections roared with a fastidious fury.
The piece is not without the occasional misstep. Crimp’s text sometimes trips into cliché, and the pounding heart beats in the orchestra as the Protector’s anger mounts seem like a dramatic device less imaginative than Benjamin’s others; but moments such as these stand out in part because the score and libretto are otherwise so airtight and accomplished.
At Monday’s concert performance, in the role of the Protector, bass-baritone Evan Hughes presented a riveting study in thinly sheathed rage; the rich-toned soprano Lauren Snouffer made Agnès’s passage into awakening and rebellion strikingly vivid; and the countertenor Augustine Mercante, if perhaps inhabiting fewer dimensions of his role, sang with assurance. His performance also highlighted Benjamin’s uncanny way of integrating a voice into the totality of his score such that it emerges almost like another instrument from the orchestra. Isaiah Bell and Tammy Coil both sang well as the Angels, doubling as secondary characters.
Meanwhile, the libretto’s debt to the writings of the other Benjamin — Walter Benjamin — is admitted and profound, particularly his war-shadowed “Theses on the Philosophy of History” and its often-quoted line linking all acts of civilization with acts of barbarism. Indeed here this plays out literally: While the Protector’s sublime work of illuminated art is being created, his men are burning down the villages of his enemies. The Angels whose chorus opens “Written on Skin” would like to turn back the clocks, to dismantle the cities, to redeem the forgotten victims. These are quite clearly Walter Benjamin’s angels of history, seeking, as he put it, “to make whole what has been smashed.” But in this allegory, there is no time to do so. The forward march of progress pins us in its grip. Cities seal the landscapes that once held the past. We learn in the opera’s final moments that the angels — like us, Crimp suggests — stare today at the white lines of a parking lot, built on top of the piles of the dead.
It is this framing of both beauty and violence in the past that confers on the opera its haunting weight, and brings a palpable resonance to the events of an otherwise pulpy 13th-century tale. But the real engine of enchantment here is George Benjamin’s complexly beautiful 21st-century score, one that carries forward the worlds of Debussy and Berg without surrendering to either one.
This essential new opera has gone far already, and will only continue its rise.