Sunday, July 15, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

The Aix-en-Provence Festival gets pride of place this year in premiering a new opera at its main venue, the Grand Theatre du Provence. Written on Skin by George Benjamin was commissioned by the Festival along with four other opera companies. The libretto is by playwright Martin Crimp and Katie Mitchell was brought in from England to direct the work. That is a powerful team.

The opera is based on a very dramatic medieval story that is simple in its outline but complex in its telling by Crimp. The Protector (Christopher Purves), a wealthy and dictatorial landowner, hires the Boy (Bejun Mehta) to prepare an illuminated book celebrating his life. The time is around 1200 A.D. and books are scarce, expensive and indeed written on skin.

The Protector’s beautiful and illiterate wife Agnès seduces The Boy. The Protector becomes suspicious but the Boy pretends that he made to love to Marie (Rebecca Jo Loeb), Agnès’s sister. The Boy writes a sensuous description of his love-making with Agnès which he describes as hell, but his secret is out and The Protector murders him.

In an act of vengeance The Protector forces his wife to eat The Boy’s heart and she eventually commits suicide by jumping off a balcony. That is an indeed a dramatic story with fascinating mythical connections even in bare outline.

Crimp does not tell the story in linear fashion. There are three Angels who turn into the Boy, Marie and her husband John. The Angels “live” on one side of the stage, in the present, while the medieval characters occupy the other side of the stage. The story is often told in the third person and there is the Brechtian “epic theatre” notion of letting us know that a story is being told rather than an encounter with reality.

So far so good, Enter composer Benjamin. The opera opens with the Angels singing about stripping present civilization and going back. This is accompanied by dissonant music.

The Protector and Agnes enter and one of the Angels becomes The Boy. The story unfolds through the encounters in medieval times with segments under the fluorescent lights of the present.

There are flashes of musical activity but most of the opera is sung through, slowly, very slowly, to the point of sheer motionlessness. There are some vocal flourishes but much of it is recitatives and declamatory singing that ranges from the bearable to the simply boring. In short, aside from some dramatic and some lyrical segments, I did not like Benjamin’s music at all.

Director Mitchells keeps the action moving as best she can but some of the scenes take so long you have difficulty maintaining your interest even in a dramatic story such as the one unfolding in front of you.

Soprano Barbara Hannigan as Agnès is the most sympathetic character of the opera. She is treated like property by her brute of a husband and her discovery of love and passion lead to her destruction. She sings well during the few vocal flourishes that she is given.

Countertenor Bejun Mehta is The Boy and Angel 1. He bears some physical resemblance to The Protector and there is sexual tension between the two. It is one of the fascinating turns in the plot that would be fascinating in a play but fails to be fully developed in the slow-motion progress of the story under the weight of Benjamin’s music.

Mezzo-soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb stepped in to replace the ailing Victoria Simmonds as Angel 2 and Marie. Angel 3 and John were played by tenor Allan Clayton.

The composer conducted the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

The opera is sung in English with French surtitles and it was not always easy to follow the text without resorting to the surtitles.

Not everyone shared my negative reaction to the opera. At the end, the audience gave the composer, librettist and director an extended and enthusiastic standing ovation. Some people dashed out as soon as the curtain started descending and others stood up politely and kept their hands at their sides but the majority registered whole-hearted approval. There is no accounting for taste!

Written on Skin by George Benjamin (music), Martin Crimp (libretto) opened on July 7 and will be performed four times until July 14, 2012 at the Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, France.

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