George Benjamin, “Written on Skin”
(Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/George Benjamin) (Opus Arte DVD)
The DVD of George Benjamin’s pathbreaking opera opens with a shot of a glass harmonica, one of the unusual instruments the composer imported into his orchestra to evoke the medieval world in which its tragic action unfolds. “Written on Skin” has an unusual dramaturgical frame: The 14th-century story — about a rich landowner, the Protector; his neglected, illiterate wife, Agnès; and the Boy, who comes to write the Protector’s hagiography and overturns their placid façade — is overlaid with caustic, present-day commentary from a trio of angels.
The libretto, by playwright Martin Crimp, is richly suggestive while still respecting the drama’s propulsive force, which is enhanced by the way the characters view themselves artificially, as characters in a drama (“says the woman,” “says the Boy”). Katie Mitchell’s production, recorded at the Royal Opera House in March 2013, captures the oscillation between time periods by surrounding a half-lit room from the Protector’s castle with sterile, brightly lit modern rooms and a concrete staircase.
It is difficult to overstate the inventiveness, detail, and textural richness of Benjamin’s score. While the colors are brilliant, its greatest invention is the way its musical language balances past and present, tonality and atonality, violence and uneasy tenderness, more successfully than anyone since Alban Berg, whose inspiration is all over the 90-minute opera.
All of the principals give searing performances. Christopher Purves is a bluntly uncomprehending Protector, and countertenor Bejun Mehta is simultaneously daring and naive as the Boy. But no one makes a stronger impression than soprano Barbara Hannigan as the tortured and ultimately defiant Agnès. Benjamin conducts his own score, perfectly attuned to the singers. If there’s a small reservation, it’s that the sound picture gives so much prominence to the voices that the orchestra is shortchanged a bit. (The reverse was true at the American premiere of the opera, a concert performance at Tanglewood last summer.) But it hardly matters. This is essential viewing and listening for anyone interested in opera — or music more generally — today.