The verdict on Written on Skin
has already been delivered, and it has been overwhelmingly positive. Some critics went so far as to call it the greatest opera of the century. Such a judgement presupposes an extraordinarily wide knowledge of recent opera, but I will endorse it to this extent: I know of no better one.
The collaboration between George Benjamin and Martin Crimp, which began with Into the Little Hill
(2006), is surely the best thing that has happened to British opera for a long time. In the future we may look back with as much pride at the fact that ‘we were there’ as a previous generation felt at having experienced the premieres of Britten’s operas. If I still have a certain sneaking preference for Into the Little Hill
over the present work, it is because I feel I understand it better. That said, Written on Skin
is undoubtedly the grander, more ambitious and deeper of the two operas.
Almost exactly two hundred years ago, E. T. A. Hoffmann agonised in ‘Der Dichter und der Komponist’ over the question of whether a composer should try to write his own libretto or find someone else to write it for him. His answer, in so far as he offers one, seems to be that it is better to find someone else to write the libretto if – and it’s a big if – the right
person can be found. Benjamin is one of the comparatively small number of composers who seems to have found exactly the right person and who had the good sense and easy-going nature to maintain the relationship; he and Crimp are now working on a third opera together – hurrah. Crimp, an important playwright, brings a superb sense of theatre to these collaborations, as well as the checks and balances inherent in teamwork. My money is on them long outliving the entirely self-written efforts of composers like Tippett and Maxwell Davies.
It is the theatrical element which makes this DVD so welcome. The opera is already available on CD, on Benjamin’s usual label, Nimbus
, with a virtually identical cast; Rebecca Jo Loeb, who played Angel 2/Marie has been replaced by Victoria Simmonds. For anyone wanting to savour the strange beauty of the music, the CD is an excellent investment, not least for the valuable accompanying materials. Indeed given the oddly disembodied and ethereal qualities of Benjamin’s music I find it very rewarding to listen to in a darkened room without visual distractions. Written on Skin
is a difficult work to follow unless it is seen — and even then it is demanding. The DVD preserves a permanent record of Katie Mitchell’s deservedly acclaimed staging — with designs by Vicki Mortimer — of the premiere performances. These were produced first in Aix-en-Provence and then in London. However, it does much more than that, for it is not at all one of those cheaply/lazily filmed versions of a stage production that often passes for an opera DVD. Indeed the real star of the DVD, albeit an, er, unsung one, is the screen director Margaret Williams. She transforms Written on Skin
into something which often looks like a made-for-TV opera with brilliantly structured close-ups and skilfully employed overhead shots that transform the viewer’s relationship with the events on stage. This is one of the best filmed operas I’ve ever seen.
Williams’ intelligent direction would be meaningless if the cast could not deliver: but they do … and magnificently. The quality of the acting is absolutely superb and the DVD stands as a knockdown argument to those sceptics who tend to assume that opera singers always ‘look wrong’ and act (if they act at all) in mannered, artificial ways. The three central characters – The Protector, Agnès and ‘The Boy’ – turn in faultless, beautifully nuanced performances under the searching gaze of the camera. In the final scene, for example, Barbara Hannigan as Agnès has to eat The Boy’s heart, as served up by The Protector; and she has to do this while singing. This is shown in gruesome close-up, with chunks of a very convincing heart-like substance actually disappearing into Hannigan’s mouth. She brilliantly portrays the movement from retching and revulsion to greedy defiance for which the text and music calls. This is obviously not an opera for the squeamish, or for children. Altogether, with the creators of the roles turning in such superb performances and Benjamin himself conducting, this can be taken as a definitive record of a modern masterpiece likely to be performed and studied for many years to come.
There is a disappointment. The opera itself is short (90 minutes) and the bonus features, ‘An Introduction to Written on Skin
’ and an ‘Interview with George Benjamin’, clock up a measly 8 minutes between them. One could be pedantic and point out that there is even less, given that material from the interview is also used in the ‘Introduction’. An obvious generous bonus for an expensive DVD like this would have been the Royal Opera House’s earlier production of the short Into the Little Hill
. Failing that, and accepting the present format, I feel that far more should have been said to shed light on the intended meaning of what is, by any standard, a difficult work. My problem with the opera is that the easy-to-follow main story seems a profound meditation on the connections between art, sex and power - and to some extent religion. However, despite repeatedly watching the DVD and playing the CD I am still unsure what the framework of ‘twenty-first century Angels’ adds to this in terms of dramatic value. If they do not add value, they come across as a distraction. Crimp was interviewed for the ‘Introduction’, but the only part included on the DVD has him saying ‘We wanted to maintain the thirteenth-century nature of the [source] story, but at the same time neither of us had a taste for creating purely a medieval story, so I in fact created a framework around the story, a framework of contemporary angels, twenty-first century angels, who set the story in motion and at moments participate in it.’ What, one immediately wants to ask, is
a ‘twenty-first century angel’? Are angels regularly upgraded? Looking at the lives these ones lead, one could certainly conclude that the best time to be an angel passed long ago, perhaps when Murillo laid down his paintbrush. If the point is that the story is timeless, the demonstration actually seems to jeopardise the point in the act of making it.
Bejun Mehta, who plays The Boy (who is Angel 1), reveals a good deal more in the snatch of his interview included here: ‘He [the character] has lost his way in the universe and is trying to find a way to find meaning, and he re-enacts this story and participates in it to see what he can learn, and he needs to experience as a human being these very powerful forces […] being amidst lost people.’ This is very interesting: I don’t believe anyone could work this out on the basis of the libretto, and I don’t believe Mehta reasoned out this backstory for himself. I imagine he heard it direct from Crimp or Benjamin, and that this is part of their concept of the work not contained in the opera itself. If this sort of interpretative material exists, and people were actually filmed making such statements, it is shocking that someone decided that the ‘Introduction’ could be cut down to a mere five minutes. Anyone really interested in the opera will want much more, and to its great credit the Nimbus CD offers much more.
Altogether, though, I must end positively: this DVD presents a great opera with a gripping story, original and compelling music, superb performances, wonderful stage direction and textbook level film direction. It will appeal strongly to opera aficionados, anyone who has enjoyed Benjamin’s earlier music, and the sort of people who like intelligent spoken theatre but tend to be suspicious, sometimes with good reason, of modern opera. It rewards repeated reviewing and deep imaginative engagement; eventually, I’m sure, I’ll work out exactly why those angels have to be there.
Robert Hugill’s interview with the composer