According to the director Katie Mitchell, it was not so much a standing ovation as “an eruption” that greeted the world premiere of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin. A rapturous response for contemporary opera is a tad rare, to say the least, but at last summer’s Aix-en-Provence Festival critics and public alike were swift to declare this one a masterpiece. Now it is coming to the Royal Opera House (it is a co-production between five international theatres and festivals) and a new CD, recorded at Aix, is also testimony to the extraordinary quality of its music, text and performers.
Based on a 13th-century Provençal story entitled Guillem de Cabestanh – le coeur mangé (“The Eaten Heart”), the opera brings together this leading British composer’s precisely wrought music and an original text by Martin Crimp. A group of present-day angels, world-weary and vengeful, awaken from the medieval dead three people: the Protector, his wife Agnès and a character named simply the Boy – in fact one of the angels – to re-enact the worst moments of their lives.
The Protector commissions the Boy to create a book of illuminated manuscripts, which are “written on skin”, to portray his glory. Agnès – illiterate, oppressed, bright and furious – begins a passionate affair with the Boy and demands that he enters this fact into his book. Questioned by the Protector, he lies, saying that his lover is Agnès’s sister; but Agnès berates him for his untruth. The facts revealed in writing – which Agnès cannot read – the Protector murders him, then forces Agnès to eat a meal which he later declares was the Boy’s heart. Agnès defies him: nothing he can do will erase the taste. Before he can kill her, she leaps from a window to her death.
As Crimp’s libretto presents it, this dark history is anything but realistic. Each character narrates his or her own actions while living them; medieval depictions rub shoulders with contemporary evocations of multi-storey car parks, motorways and red shoes; the two worlds bleed imagery into one another. The sectional set design by Vicki Mortimer reflects this by placing the love triangle’s action alongside a contemporary studio for the controlling and observing angels – one of whose wings are literally written on his skin. But within this artifice, Benjamin’s music is virtually a form of hyper-realism, highlighting the nuances of the emotions as if placing them under a microscope, with a delicacy of orchestral texture that allows each word to be effortlessly audible.
Benjamin is a notorious perfectionist, relinquishing his music so slowly that it can seem positively reluctant. Despite his early start – he was only 20 when a work of his was first performed at the Proms – at 52 he still has fewer than 40 works to his catalogue. Following a triumph with a 35-minute drama, Into the Little Hill, also to a libretto by Crimp, Written on Skin is his first full-length opera. And there is a chance that this work may open his floodgates at last.
“While I was writing it I became a complete recluse,” Benjamin says. “I stopped conducting, I stopped travelling, I almost stopped teaching and I devoted myself, all day, every day, every week throughout the whole period, to a degree of concentration and submersion in work that I’ve never experienced before. But it came out, for me, very quickly – the whole process, once I got down to composing, took under two and a half years. It seems that when I have a text by Martin Crimp, wonderful people to write it for and a context which seems harmonious and welcoming, then my speed of composing is roughly eight to ten times faster than is normal for me.”
Perhaps that means that he is, at heart, an opera composer? “I think there’s something in that,” he acknowledges – and confirms that he and Crimp are now discussing their next project.
“The wonderful thing about Martin’s librettos is that they tell simple stories very directly,” says Benjamin, “but from an unpredictable angle. The words are of extraordinary clarity, but the theatrical form and the approach to narrative are highly individual. This beckons my music. If it was a completely normal, everyday setting, I wouldn’t feel any need for music. And this unusual construction, while rigorously clear, is the magic spell that allows me to write music to his words. I depend on that a hundred per cent and my objective is to serve his text and bring it to life.”
That, he adds, is what opera is for. “To me, opera is many things; but one thing is that you come to an evening, it does something to you and you come out a little bit changed. It should confront serious and profound things within us – because that, in a way, is why people sing.”
Katie Mitchell’s task has been to match the action – often visceral and violent – both to this special structure and to some extraordinary musical coups-de-théâtre. And there are two female orgasms on stage, for the story is at core about erotic rights and freedom, which Agnès asserts against the odds. “Agnès is made free sexually and that’s rather amazing,” Mitchell says. “It’s a tremendously feminist piece, which is thrilling in ‘planet opera’.” Feminist slants in opera – traditional or contemporary – indeed remain all too rare.
Throughout the piece, Mitchell adds, “we had to construct a world where modern-day angels could talk as they do, yet where simultaneously the medieval story could run as it does. And we had to try again and again to find a means of staging the end that was as good as the music.” Without betraying the entire secret of the opera’s most startling moment, let’s just say that Benjamin does something utterly breathtaking with a glass harmonica.
At the Royal Opera House, Benjamin conducts his opera himself. The Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan – who is also a trained dancer – stars in the extremely physical role of Agnès, the British baritone Christopher Purves is the Protector and Bejun Mehta, the celebrated American counter-tenor, is the Boy/Angel.
Mitchell has no doubt that Written on Skin will be a modern classic. “It’s a remarkable work in every way,” she says. “That was palpable on the opening night in Aix. The brilliance of the composition and the libretto has an immediate and concrete effect on people. I think it will outlive us all.”
Written on Skin, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is on now. Box office: 020 7304 4000