Written on Skin, Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence Festival

George Benjamin’s second opera, based on a gory Provence legend, is sensual, evocative and gloriously singable

Christopher Purves (left), Bejun Mehta and Barbara Hannegan in ‘Written on Skin’   © FT

The Protector regards everything – house, fields, workers, wife – as his property, and hires The Boy to glorify it in a book of illuminated manuscripts. His wife Agnès takes an intense interest in the book. This story does not have a happy ending.

George Benjamin’s second opera, given its world premiere at Aix-en-Provence Festival this weekend, has been awaited with feverish excitement. His first, Into the Little Hill (2006), has been about as successful as a 40-minute chamber setting of the Pied Piper story could possibly be – a triumph of contemporary music theatre. Written on Skin is a far more ambitious affair.

Like Strauss with Elektra, Benjamin’s score drives us towards the work’s gory conclusion with such dark inexorability that we feel guiltily eager for the final blood-bath.

Once again, Benjamin has teamed up with librettist Martin Crimp. This time they have drawn on the Provence legend of the 13th-century troubadour Guillem de Cabestany, who seduces the wife of jealous husband Raimon. The husband kills the poet and serves his heart to his wife, who leaps to her death. In Crimp’s version, three angels comment on the action from a contemporary perspective. Much of the action is narrated by the characters in the third person (“Agnès puts on her shoes”, etc), giving us layers within layers of narrative, with a hint of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia.

Agnès cannot read, but The Boy’s work gives her a new sense of self. A tale of adultery becomes one of emancipation and identity, literature and art. Benjamin – himself on the podium – deploys the excellent forces of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra to chilling effect, with a score that is atmospheric, descriptive, sensual and evocative. A viola da gamba and liberal reference to early music help to give a sense of time. Benjamin uses orchestral groups adroitly, sparingly, and tops them with vocal lines that are gloriously singable.

The piece is aided by a top-drawer cast. As Agnès, Barbara Hannigan has all the sensual physicality you could dream of for the role. She can convey dangerously repressed passion and sing meltingly rich high notes at the same time; she makes us believe every second of her part. Bejun Mehta is almost as astonishing as The Boy, spinning creamy countertenor lines of such seductive power that we are all conquered within a few bars. In the less lovable part of The Protector, Christopher Purves brings substance and dimension to his role.

Katie Mitchell’s production splits the stage into doll’s-house rooms on two levels (sets and costumes: Vicki Mortimer), augmenting the troupe of angels with silent supernumeraries. This is a film set, and the angels are the crew; or it is a crime scene, and they are the forensics team; or it is a laboratory, and they are the scientists. It is clear and effective, though often too frustratingly literal.

When the audience jumped to its feet for a standing ovation, the sighs of relief in the auditorium were almost audible. The production goes on to Amsterdam, Toulouse, Florence and London; with so much invested by so many, it is just as well the piece succeeds. And it does. Written on Skin will long outlive this run. The piece is superb.

To July 14, www.festival-aix.com

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