Opera Review: The Staying Power of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin

George Benjamin's Written on Skin comes to Mostly Mozart. Photo: Richard Termine

Three years after its world premiere, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin has already tattooed itself indelibly onto the story of opera. In a saner world, a piece this good would make its American stage debut in a generous run at the Met. As it is, we who caught one of three performances during a festival in the dead of summer will have to tell everyone else what they missed: a work of perfectionist bravado, stunningly performed. On a sturdy frame of plot, Benjamin stretches 90 minutes of music as taut as drum leather.

The production, directed by Katie Mitchell, originated at the Festival Aix-en-Provence, and it’s a reminder of how much poorer the American opera world would be without a steady infusion of creativity from Europe. We benefit from that out-of-continent tryout, because whatever jagged edges might have marred by the original production have since been sanded away.

Benjamin is a famously deliberate British composer who has spent a quarter-century doling out music a few very fine minutes at a time. I have sometimes found his work gorgeous but precious, as if he trusted his instincts less than the solace of one more draft. Opera, a windy, undisciplined genre, did not seem like a natural fit. Eventually, though, he found his ideal partner in a playwright with the Dickensian name of Martin Crimp, who folds every thought into a tight set of syllables. In their second collaboration, Benjamin turns out to be the Ian McEwan of opera, a natural storyteller with a surgeon’s technique and a taste for muscle and blood.

The story of Written on Skin is drawn from the adulterous life and gruesome death of the 12th-century troubadour Guillem de Cabestany, but the opera keeps only one foot in the Middle Ages. A wealthy boor with a bored wife makes the mistake of hiring a cultivated young man to do what he cannot: write a book and illustrate the manuscript. Being a medieval scribe, he paints on parchment — writes on skin — and the tale he labors over at his monkish table gradually intrudes into fleshly life. The woman demands that the artist (the Boy) make her real, and Benjamin’s music lets us feel the weight of her limbs, the scorching heat of her desire. (The score leaves no room for sloppiness, and Alan Gilbert extracts a performance of acid-etched precision from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.)

In medieval manuscripts, vivid vignettes nestle in the hollow of a D or twine themselves around the pillar of a T. Here, too, each scene unfolds within a heavily outlined frame. Or many frames, actually. The characters narrate their own action: “the Boy said,” the Boy says. The wealthy landowner refers to himself as the Protector. Crimp has put plenty of distance between himself and his lurid tale, and we are always aware that we are witnessing an opera within an opera, about a book. Mitchell never lets us forget it. She places the 13th-century action in a two-story antique house, where mildew mottles the faded ochre walls and a builder’s steel columns support the ceiling. We know it’s fake because to one side is an astringently contemporary workroom, where assistants dressed in pristine black assemble props and file costumes on the proper hangers. Characters exit their medieval scene into a present-day quadrant where, under fluorescent lights, dressers help them prepare for their next entrance. Only in the final moments does the medieval action spill into today, when the Protector chases his defenseless wife in slo-mo up a modern set of stairs.

And yet Benjamin keeps reaching out through all these devices to make the sex dangerous, the danger pleasurable, and the pleasure ominous. He has remarked that as he composed he kept thinking of stained glass, and indeed, the orchestra keeps throwing off splinters of jeweled light. It’s to Mitchell’s credit that she refrained from making those images literal: She didn’t bathe shuddering climaxes in bloodred, or blind the audience with a murderous strobe. Instead, she trusted the music. Certain chords are so sensuous and multihued that, at the first performance, I tried to pause and deconstruct them as they glittered by. Dark shadows of muted brass, the wraithlike cooing of a glass harmonica, the dry pluckings of a mandolin: These strange, clear sounds ring out like dreamlike projections of the characters’ thoughts. Elsewhere, the orchestration babbles beneath the voices, as if a separate drama were taking place on another stage, then erupts in exquisite violence. The mercurial atmosphere tracks the characters’ moods. In much opera, emotions are destiny, both because the characters cannot resist their control and because grand forces of feeling undergird the structure of the score. Benjamin is more Mozartean than that (a good thing, since the premiere takes place under the aegis of the Mostly Mozart Festival), leading us deep into each character’s emotional logic.

I feared at first that the opera would deal with archetypes, not human beings, but I was wrong. In the Protector we have a true Verdian villain, a man of extravagant jealousies and brutal urges whom Benjamin adorns with chords of midnight blue. Christopher Purves sang the role with terrifying arrogance, brooding and boasting in his mahogany baritone. His wife Agnès is the only character to earn herself a name (though not reprieve from the opera heroine’s standard fate). Her closest model might be the title character of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, a lonely housewife whose sexual urges lead to murder and lots of anguished brass. Benjamin paints the two incompatible lovers in vocal lines that could never be confused and that bring out the best in two very fine singers. Tim Mead, a countertenor, sings the Boy as an insinuating creature, soft-spoken and deceptively passive, his voice devilishly honeyed and high. Barbara Hannigan gives us a fierce Agnès, by turns seductive, imperious, and brutally honest. 

But though it’s about infidelity and masculine rage, Written on Skin twists away from raw melodrama and focuses more on the creepy character of the Boy who does the writing.  He is a disruptive angel, blowing up the straitened household with the vivid visions he inscribes on the page. We never see his illuminations but only perceive their dazzle in Agnès's ferocious reactions. In those fantastical miniatures, she glimpses the possibility of another more brilliant life, and the thought of it drives her mad.

Written on Skin is at the David H. Koch Theater through August 15.