Even the biggest opera fan can have qualms about modern opera. After all, what contemporary work could ever compete with Carmen, La Traviata or Madama Butterfly? Well, if any could, it would be the Royal Opera House’s current production of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin. Still need convincing? Then read on!
Premiered in 2012 at the Aix-en-Provence, this dark and beautiful tale of violence, passion, and betrayal has had rave reviews ever since. Librettist Martin Crimp’s lyrics tell the story of cruel, wealthy landowner, known as the Protector, who commissions a young artist – who is secretly an Angel – to create an illuminated book celebrating his life. The trouble begins when the Protector’s illiterate and submissive wife Agnès and the artist (or The Boy, as he is known) embark on a passionate love affair, which the Boy illustrates in his book, leading to dark consequences.
One of the most successful operas of recent times, Rupert Christiansen calls it “one of the operatic masterpieces of our time” in a piece written for the Telegraph. First performed at the Royal Opera House in 2013 for its UK premiere, the work has been performed all over the world, and is now returning to London in a production directed by Katie Mitchell.
Often compared to Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, as well as Alban Berg’s 1925 work, Wozzeck, Benjamin’s score is strikingly beautiful, revealing more of its secrets at every listen. Moving from moments of intense quiet to crescendos of brutality, watching is a breathlessly intense experience. Benjamin himself is the conductor for this current production, and leads an unusual orchestra comprising sleigh bells, steel drums and the glass harmonica.
This dark fairytale takes its inspiration from a 12th-Century Occitan legend about a troubadour, and there are hints of the Medieval everywhere, jarringly juxtaposed with modern references. Originally created for Barbara Hannigan, the role of Agnès has been commendably taken over by Georgia Jarman, with Iestyn Davies’ rich counter-tenor adding roguish note to the character of the Boy.
Whatever your general feelings on contemporary opera, Written on Skin might be one to make an exception for. But – if it is still too modern – why not book a table at Bel Canto and hear several of your opera favourites all in one evening?