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George BENJAMIN (b. 1960)
Written on Skin (2012) [91:29]*
Duet for Piano and Orchestra (2012) [12:05]**
Barbara Hannigan (soprano) - Agnès*
Rebecca Jo Loeb (mezzo) - Angel 2/Marie*
Bejun Mehta (counter-tenor) - Angel 1/The Boy*
Allan Clayton (tenor) - Angel 3/John*
Christopher Purves (baritone) - The Protector*
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)**
Mahler Chamber Orchestra/George Benjamin*
rec.7, 14-15 July, 2012, Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, France. DDD*
NIMBUS NI5885/6 [59:53 + 42:42]


One of the most remarkable things about this excellent first recording of George Benjamin's new opera, Written on Skin, is the speed with which it's been produced. Commissioned jointly by the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, Nederlands Opera Amsterdam, Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, Royal Opera House Covent Garden (where it ran in March 2013) and Teatro del Maggio Musicale, Florence, it was premièred in Aix in July 2012.
Bernard Foccroulle, the Director at Aix, first approached Benjamin twenty years earlier with an outline request for a full length opera. Although the composer didn't feel that he was ready, such works as Dance Figures and Into the Little Hill in 2004 and 2006 show how the operatic/dramatic side of Benjamin's work was developing in a direction consistent with an eventual full-scale opera like this.
Here it is. To a text by dramatist Martin Crimp, with whom Benjamin collaborated on Little Hill, Written on Skin is based on the grisly 13th century Occitan legend of the troubadour, Guillaume de Cabestanh. His seduction of another's wife leads to his own death and to his heart being eaten by his lover - with near relish. Written on Skin is not mere chronicle. Rather it's a treatment of the eternally relevant themes of adultery, jealousy and vengeance and in the end, also of personal identity and freedom.
It's also strident, tender, lyrical, quietly rhetorical, very human, humane, gripping, beautiful of sound, delicate and potentially quiescent, unflinching, and alarmingly sinewy. The singing styles, the orchestral textures and colours, the pace, the dramatic focus, all vary in exact concord with the story and its important (underlying) ideas and ideals. Benjamin truly shows himself an expert at this, binding himself to a contemporary idiom which is both approachable and upliftingly unique.
Indeed, since the performances last year, the opera has attracted universal acclaim. Sung in English it lasts about 100 minutes; slightly less across the two CDs here. It's in three parts without other marked breaks or intervals, Written on Skin makes no meal of its measured and completely purposeful intensity. Likewise its juxtaposition of tonality and a comfortably contemporary style of writing; the confluence of a mediaeval French topos with 21st century angels observing the tragedy and of the inclusion of the likes of glass harmonica, cowbells and mandolins.
Nor does it make any bones about these audacious and distinct aspects. There is nothing coy about Written on Skin. This confidence on the part of composer and librettist - although Crimp doesn't like that term - do indeed indicate qualities of an enduring masterpiece, as some reaction has suggested the work will become. It may well be following Ringed By the Flat Horizon from 1980 - at the start of Benjamin's career - which speedily became a staple and a 'classic'.
The story, the characterisations, the tensions, the outcomes and what the legend can teach us about life are all highly accessible in this attractively-priced CD set from Nimbus. The principals are all strong and obviously completely at one with Benjamin's conception. Their delivery strikes a perfect balance between detachment and the inevitable emotions resulting from the events they portray. It’s in 15 scenes, each lasting from just over one minute to almost nine. The acting of Purves and Hannigan in particular is credible and compelling. They know the work sufficiently well to invite our reconsideration of its layers at each successive hearing without over-demonstration or fey understatement.
Their characters are strong ones: they are driven by lust, justified wishes for understanding and empathy, by jealousy, (self-)deception and revenge. Agnès (soprano, Barbara Hannigan) is very much her own woman; she's self-aware yet is held down, held back, specifically by her husband, The Protector (baritone, Christopher Purves). She insists upon forging an identity that - towards the very end - appears indestructible through a liaison with The Boy (counter-tenor, Bejun Mehta). Another key aspect is the way in which our focus, sympathy perhaps, identification certainly, shifts subtly between the leading male and female roles. Balance is achieved well.
This is the substance of the opera, then. Through text and remarkably lucid and beautiful music, the relationship between Agnès and The Protector encompasses not only potential liberation for Agnès but also equally inescapable frustrations, and visions of the worlds contained in visual and literary representation - she cannot read or write.
Crimp's text is poetic: both lyrical and direct. The perfect vehicle for the taut, tightly-scored music which Benjamin has made one with it in Written on Skin. It's beautiful music and full of variety in tempi, pace, orchestral colour and density. The tones will remain with you after listening in ways similar to those experienced in Berg's operas. Written on Skin has been compared with Lulu and Wozzeck - though for its lyricism less than its angularity. The destructive Angst is there too.
The acoustic of the Grand Théâtre de Provence is not over-resonant. The Nimbus engineers have captured the performances over two nights there during its première run in a way that does the work complete justice. It does, in fact, sound less staged than live recordings can. There’s very little stage noise, next to no discernible audience reaction - only applause at the end of the Duet. Our attention is always on the people, their perplexities, failings, failures, weaknesses - and perhaps implied strengths.
The production, rather, successfully emphasises Benjamin's intense exploration of the relationships between sexuality and brutality, desire and its consequences, ethics and appetite, the forbidden and the prevailing code of conduct; between the Mediaeval and the present - not to mention what is at the fount of all of those conflicts: the relationships between protagonists.
The two booklets which come with the CDs have much useful material by and about those involved including a very illuminating interview with Benjamin. There are the usual illustrated bios of the performers, background and the full text, with a synopsis.
Given the length of the opera, Nimbus has also included Benjamin's Duet for Piano and Orchestra with the same forces and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, recorded at the same time. This lasts just over ten minutes and displays the energy, originality and urgent sense of life which we expect from this composer. It's neither virtuosic nor adversarial. Rather, it explores the colours, tendencies and characteristics which the orchestra's and the piano's palettes have in common; and how these can contribute to an integrated musical experience. Aimard's playing is predictably impeccable with generosity and reserve in equal measure. There are no 'fireworks' despite the exploration of the very nature of both sound-worlds.
If any combination of contemporary British music, opera and/or George Benjamin's admirable output is of even minimal interest to you, then this is a release that you will not want to miss. The music is beautiful and central in style and theme to the worlds to which it makes such a valuable contribution. Unsurprisingly the performances are clear, clean and persuasive. After you've been suitably heartened that contemporary music, and contemporary opera at that, can be conceived, performed and received as well as this, you'll also be left with a work of immense value in its own right.
Mark Sealey

see also:

Mark Berry reviewing the production in London:

Jose Irurzun reviewing the productionin Toulouse:

Robert Hugill’s Interview with George Benjamin: