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March 11, 2013 5:42 pm
Anyone worried about the future of opera – whether its lumbering conventions can survive and adapt in a fast-moving, high-tech 21st-century world – should take heart from George Benjamin’s opera, premiered last summer at Aix-en-Provence and now receiving its first UK performances. Written on Skin has two priceless components – a powerful allegorical tale, both medieval and up-to-the-minute, couched in librettist Martin Crimp’s terse, poetic prose, and a score that is ultra-sophisticated, subtle and often extremely sensuous, but also capable of the bestial and guttural.
This is an opera that recognisably extends the tradition of Wozzeck and Pelléas in its exploration of the human condition, while carving out a unique place in modern opera. That’s because Benjamin avoids what he calls the “zigzagging” clichés of contemporary vocal writing and instead writes music that expresses emotion. Lasting 90 minutes without interval, the opera unfolds at a predominantly slow tempo, generating an undertow of foreboding that occasionally flips into violence. As at Aix, Benjamin himself conducts and the performance is a triumph.
The story – about a repressed man who ruthlessly controls his wife and forces her to eat the heart of her murdered lover – is simultaneously disturbing and inspiring. On one level it is an allegory of tyranny. “Do what you like with my body but you can’t control my spirit,” the wife seems to be saying, as she commits suicide. On another level it is a blatantly feminist interpretation of sexual politics. The man psychologically abuses his wife because he cannot engage with the “dirt” of adult intimacy. The wife ends up controlling the situation.
The intensity of feeling inherent in Benjamin’s score is mirrored in a Katie Mitchell staging that, while surprisingly realistic, respects its cinematic flow and underpins its distancing devices. One of the opera’s quirks is the way it calls on the principal characters to narrate thoughts and feelings in the third person, shadowed by three “Angels” from our own time, and it’s a mark of how wholeheartedly the singers have embraced their roles that this device seems so natural. Barbara Hannigan makes a mesmerising Agnès, with a voice as pure as it is expressive. Christopher Purves humanises the Protector and Bejun Mehta’s Boy is the sound of seduction.
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