Dissecting Human Passions
Written on Skin, Royal Opera House, January 13th 2017, music composed by George Benjamin, text by Martin Crimp, directed by Katie Mitchell, reviewed by Alessandro Zummo
Written on Skin comes from a close collaboration between the stage director Katie Mitchell, the librettist Martin Crimp and the composer George Benjamin. It is a deep meditation on the power of art and how it can transform our lives, and has returned to the Royal Opera House for the second time with almost the same cast of its premiere.
The opera was conceived for the Aix en Provence festival in 2012 and was clearly intended to establish a connection with Occitan traditions. In fact, it is inspired by the razo and vida, the troubadour poetries commissioned by wealthy patrons in order to have their loves and deeds bequeathed and illuminated with refined miniatures. This opera refers in particular to the popular story of the poet Guillem de Cabestaing, who is commissioned by a local squire to write his achievements on skin/parchment. Eventually, the landowner’s wife falls in love with the poet and that leads to the poet being killed, having his heart removed and served as a meal to the woman, who swears not to eat anymore, leading her eventually to throw herself from a tower to escape her abusive husband.
But Crimp then goes forward and the story takes an almost metaphysical twist: the opera opens with urban, contemporary angels digging out this old story, in a sort of archaeological work and one of them, called throughout “the Boy”, is sent to the medieval dimension and becomes the illuminator. Katie Mitchell effectively conveys this idea of parallel worlds by means of meticulous stage subdivisions, a style already seen in Lucia di Lammermoor in 2016 at the Royal Opera House, in which simultaneous actions takes place, like living canvases. A contemporary, neon lit, cold laboratory, where the angels operate, contrasts with the rustic atmosphere of the Protector’s house and his wife.
The angel/boy, is a countertenor, an intentionally androgynous figure by whom everyone is fatally attracted/repulsed even against their will. Wonderfully interpreted by Iestyn Davies, he is the demiurge between a world of ideas and reality.
The life of the Protector and his wife is a mundane one, consisting of obsessive, repetitive actions. ‘Addicted to purity and violence’ is how the Protector describes himself when he boasts about his power and possessions, which also includes his wife, treated brutally like property and referred to by him as “the woman” throughout. Christopher Purves interprets the violent, cuckolded husband with the energy required by the role despite some occasional hoarseness in his voice.
But when his wife’s sensuality awakens through the power of art she regains possession of her body and identity: then she is called by her real name Agnes. Barbara Hannigan gives a compelling interpretation of the character, managing the complexity of the score with great mastery. All of the characters talk about themselves in the third person, contributing to a sense of estrangement throughout the opera.
The music follows the action very closely, with dissonant chords, obsessive ostinato patterns, harmonic suspensions and wide use of recitatives. There is an almost physical adherence between music and scene in some passages: when the two lovers are overwhelmed by passion it feels as if the music is simulating a pulsing heartbeat. And in the finale when Agnes ascends to the upper world through death there is a moment of eerie musical transfiguration.
But despite all these interesting elements there is only one mood throughout: a relentless tension. The music serves the story well enough but the evolution of Agnes, the only character with some psychological dynamism, isn’t clearly reflected in the music. So in the end, this opera is an exceptional intellectual effort but a cold dissection of human behaviour that fails overall to engage at an emotional level.
ALESSANDRO ZUMMO writes for www.playtosee.com