There are two realities: a scene from the Medieval era of a Protector, a rich landowner, enlisting an illuminator of manuscripts to capture his life into a book while another scene follows angels milling around a sterile studio or laboratory, watching over them. Little does the landowner know that this ‘Boy’ is an angel in disguise who falls in love with his wife Agnès who is deeply enamored by his art. They pursue a clandestine affair that ends with bloody consequences – nothing can take away the delicious taste of the Boy’s heart from Agnès’s mouth.
Composer George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp received praise and success at their 2012 opening at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Written in Skin is so good that it has been performed internationally, including New York, Amsterdam, Toulouse, Munich, and Vienna. Last Friday they returned back to the Royal Opera House with the same directors and designers, Katie Mitchell and Vicky Mortimer, after their 2013 outing to remind audiences at the Covent Garden of what crisp and original opera writings feels, sounds and looks like.
Benjamin and Crimp stylishly produced an opera that took a 12th century story, of the troubadour Guillaume de Cabestanh, and re-moulded it against a contemporary backdrop mentioning air miles and parking lots. Meddling indirectly with environmental and domestic issues, the writing pulls the dramatic story into a 90-minute fold, that swirls into a moving, psychological and musical feast, happening all at the same time.
The Protector and his wife are stuck on earth restricted by life’s heavy weariness as they race around in real-time while the angels surrounding them are in a timeless realm. They shapeshift across the milieu where the angels (Victoria Simmonds, Mark Padmore and other performers) glide and move in slow-mo.
There’s an atmospheric intensity to Written on Skin that makes one feel as if they are inside the opera. They feel the passion of Agnès, sung by Barbara Hannigan who is a tour de force performer with razor sharp attention to detail. The Boy is exquisitely performed by countertenor Iestyn Davies who retains a purity of character and innocence that makes him an exemplary fit for the role. And audiences can sense the vanity and grotesque misogyny of the Protector, sung by Christopher Purves, who curses and abuses his illiterate wife.
Benjamin employs other unexpected instruments including bongos, a viola da gamba, and glass harmonium, which adds more expression and newness to the score. (I honestly felt as if I heard every single instrument in the Royal Opera Orchestra at the ROH’s first night.) Benjamin, who also conducts the piece, deliberately wants audiences to feel terrified by the Protector and to feel fear and pity for the Boy and victimized wife. The experience of all of the characters is palpable and visceral, especially as there are minimal breaks in between. Despite the absence of an interval, there are a couple of scene changes that require no more than a minute of the curtains to be down which, I believe, is beneficial for audiences to let things sink in.
With a 90-minutes opera with unparallel singing, marvelous staging, an ethereal score, and tickets as cheap as £6, what have you got to lose? Stop thinking about it and just get yourself a ticket before they sell out.