Written on Skin: an unoperatic opera
A few, vaguely ordered, thoughts on George Benjamin’s Written on Skin:
- It is deftly scored, and has some beautiful passages: the stars coming out in the first act; the falling scene in the third.
- Despite the excitement about Barbara Hannigan, and my general love of the counter-tenor voice, I thought the Christopher Purves as the Protector was the stand-out performer, distinguished by his range of expression, reaching into a menacing growl at points.
- The dolls’-house staging was beautifully executed, and I particularly liked the scene where snow could be seen falling in the dark behind one window. It also brought the conceit of contrasting modern-day conservators with the mediæval setting of the story.
- But the continued repetition of quotative phrases, ‘Said the Boy’, ‘Said the Woman’, along, less seriously, with the occasional but overt anachronisms, served to distance us from the action: it was emphasised that we were’t watching the story actually happening, but a group of mummers retelling it. As a narrative within a narrative, it reminded me rather of a Bach Passsion, or one of Britten’s Parables, rather than a full-blown opera.
- Furthermore, neither the libretto nor the score gave much room for character development. I felt that Agnès’s rejection of her husband was explained intellectually and within the narrative, but little was done to explain why she subsequently sought intimacy with the Boy, and neither did we witness her emotional journey from chattel to free spirit to avenging fury.
- The piece is very short for an opera, at just over an hour and a half, though not short enough to be a one-act miniature. It’s divided into three acts, and the curtain dropped for a few minutes between each act. Oddly, no one applauded after each act, so we were left with an uncomfortable silence which then dissolved into chatter until the stage had been reset and the orchestra played again.
- All in all, there was something rather unoperatic about the piece, and the performance felt a little like a lavish—and well judged, effective and beautiful—staging of a work originally destined for the concert hall.