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George Benjamin’s opera is the most subtle, the most sophisticated, the most powerful musical drama of the modern era. That much became clear at its Aix-en-Provence premiere in July 2012 and again at its first UK performance at Covent Garden last March, when this DVD was filmed.
Couched in Martin Crimp’s poetic prose, Written on Skin tells the passionate, gory story of a repressive landowner (The Protector), his subjugated wife Agnès and a young visiting artist (The Boy), with whom she has an affair – resulting in murder and mayhem. Based on a medieval French tale but with contemporary overtones, it packs a lot into 90 minutes. Benjamin’s achievement is to make opera seem natural in the 21st century: Written on Skin is a vivid successor to Pelléas et Mélisande in its lyrical sensuousness and to Wozzeck in its cinematographic fluency and unsparing analysis of the human condition.
The DVD, supplemented by an illuminating introduction and interview with the composer, has the same cast as the audio recording of the Aix performance, but easily supplants it. Margaret Williams’s camera captures the segmentation of Katie Mitchell’s hugely watchable staging and includes some judicious overhead shots. One of the opera’s quirks is the way it calls on the cast to narrate thoughts and feelings in the third person, reminding the audience of the characters they represent, and it’s a mark of how wholeheartedly the principal trio – Christopher Purves, Barbara Hannigan and Bejun Mehta – embraced their roles that the device seems so natural.
Benjamin, who conducts his own score, avoids the clichés of contemporary vocal writing and creates a mood of tingling tension – predominantly slow tempi – that occasionally flips into violence. On every level, this is a triumph.
Written on Skin
Royal Opera/George Benjamin/Katie Mitchell