Written on Skin, Landestheater Detmold, Germany – review

The meat tastes as sweet as her own milk, and as salt as her own tears, says Agnès. Her husband reveals: he has served her the heart of her lover.

As George Benjamin’s Written on Skin begins on the small stage of Detmold’s Landestheater, we already know how it will end. The opera, given its world premiere in Aix-en-Provence two years ago, has romped round the world, harvesting awards. Judged statistically and artistically, it is already the 21st century’s most successful new opera. Martin Crimp’s libretto packs a poetic punch. It is based on a 13th-century Provençal legend about a rich landowner, his wife and the boy he hires to write his praises in the form of an illuminated manuscript. And Benjamin’s score, eerily nostalgic yet pure and inventive, is simply superb.

Detmold, even more than Bonn’s production six months ago, constitutes a litmus test for the piece. Stripped of the opulence of Katie Mitchell’s Aix staging, denied the luxury of a world-class instrumental ensemble, can this opera hold its own?

Kay Metzger’s production is a modest affair, simpler and more literal than Mitchell’s multi-layered extravagance. His three angels have wings sprouting from white laboratory coats, and they run a morgue that is part mad-house, part theatre of the mind. Martin Kemner’s video projections begin in alarming literalism before morphing into more abstract blurs and cloudscapes. Bakelite fittings and peeling walls imply the shabby 1950s. The Protector and his wife sport clothes that could be Mormon or Amish, and recall Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” pitchfork painting. This is a whole new world of visual reference, and it fits well with the social tensions of the piece.

With modest means, Detmold keeps a gripping edge on Benjamin’s thriller. The solid cast is well rehearsed, and singers inhabit their parts with as much ease as if this were Carmen. Vera-Lotte Böcker evolves from demure repression to animal passion with compelling strength; Andreas Jören is convincingly dark as her violent husband; and Bernhard Landauer brings the right note of androgynous seduction to the double role of The Boy and Angel 1. Lutz Rademacher keeps his forces secure and his tempi taut.

On a small stage and on a limited budget, Written on Skin still moves and mesmerises. It is a tribute to Detmold, and another notch in George Benjamin’s belt. The production goes on to Stockholm.


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