Monday 4 March 2013

A masterwork - CD Review - Written on Skin

George Benjamin - Written on Skin - NI 5885/6
George Benjamin's second opera, Written on Skin, was premiered at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in July 2012 and this live recording made during the performances. The composer conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra with a cast of singers (Christopher Purves, Barbara Hannigan, Bejun Mehta, Allan Clayton and Rebecca Jo Loeb) for whose voices he explicitly wrote the vocal parts. The story is based on an old Provencal tale, the opera was a joint commission between Aix-en-Provence and Covent Garden and Aix requested a Provencal connection to the story. Benjamin and his librettist Martin Crimp have produced a distinctive take on a story which covers love, sex, passion, lack of communication, control and a woman being fed the cooked heart of her lover. In other words, all the elements you need in an opera.

Martin Crimp wrote the libretto of Benjamin's first opera, Into the Little Hill and their collaboration is central to Benjamin's operatic output. Crimp's text, with its economy and use of third person narration (a device which Crimp uses in his own plays) both makes space for Benjamin's music and provide an off-kilter, non-naturalistic frame for the story. When I interviewed the composer he was firm in his opinion that naturalistically set operatic dialogue felt awkward, and left him wondering why the characters were not in a film.

Crimp, in an article in the programme book for the Covent Garden performances of Into the Little Hill commented that a libretto should not work on it's own, something should be missing - the music. Something which, I  think, is not always understood by contemporary opera makers. Crimp's language is quite plain, but still poetic, well judged in terms of providing clear, settable texts.

The plot of Written on Skin is highly erotic and rather grisly. Incidentally the title has no reference to tattooing, despite the images use in publicising the London performances.

The Protector (Christopher Purves) lives with his wife Agnes (Barbara Hannigan). He wishes to commission a book and brings in the Boy (Bejun Mehta) to create and illustrate it. Troubled at first by the Boy, the illiterate Agnes, who is firmly controlled by her husband, falls in love with the Boy. The Protector responds with anger and confusion at the changes that happen to his wife. The Boy seeks to protect her by lying to the Protector about whom he is sleeping with. But Agnes wishes her husband to know so the Boy writes a secret page to the book. Ultimately the Protector kills the Boy, cooks his heart and feeds it to Agnes, but he fails to recapture the control over her which he once had.

Benjamin and Crimp frame this with three contemporary Angels who introduce, comment on and are involved in the action. One Angel doubles as the Boy (Bejun Mehta), whilst Rebecca Jo Loeb and Allan Clayton play Angels and Agnes sister Marie and husband, Joseph

The action isn't continuous, instead the piece is structured as a sequence of 15 scenes, which could almost be seen as individual illuminations in their own right.

Benjamin's music is vivid and violent, there are plenty of orchestral outbursts; this isn't a highly talkative opera and Benjamin provides plenty of space for the music to flow round the voices. The orchestral interlude  when the Protector kills the Boy is a superb piece of orchestral dramatics and perhaps the most violent moment in the score. But Benjamin is also concerned about the voices, so anyone coming to this from his orchestra music might be surprised at the clarity and sparseness of the textures in the vocal sections. When singing, the voices here are prime which gives Benjamin access to a wide range of emotions and vocal colours. He is blessed with a group of singing actors all of whom respond brilliantly to the space and opportunity that he gives them. This is not the sort of contemporary opera where the singers are constantly screaming to be heard.

Benjamin uses a slightly altered orchestral body, fewer strings, more woodwind and brass, but still numbering only 60 in total. In addition he uses a viola da gamba and a glass harmonica. This latter in particular gives the scenes a strange, haunted aural glow and the player is given some quite challenging music.

Each of the scenes has a subtly different texture and aural background, ensuring variety, interest and onward motion. The way the piece is paced is exemplary and I really do look forward to seeing it in the theatre. There is no feeling of peaking too early. Act one ends with the love scene between Agnes and the Boy, act two ends with a further scene between them where Agnes is furious that the Boy has lied to the Protector and insists he ' Push our love into that man's eye like a hot needle'.

One of the interesting features of the casting is the use of a counter-tenor as the Boy. Benjamin has said that he found the timbre of Bejun Mehta's voice fascinating and that he appreciated being able to write for two voices, so similar in pitch but so different in timbre, entwined together. For me, these scenes between Mehta and Hannigan are some of the highlights of the piece.

Hannigan's clear soprano soars beautifully and she makes a wonderful transition from controlled spouse to passionate feeling woman. A transformation which her husband neither understands nor appreciates. Purves is superb as the husband, by turns passionate and violent, secure in his own world view and uncomprehending of what he has set in motion by introducing the boy. There is something beautifully direct about Purves' delivery that you never completely hate the Protector, you can understand his side as well. Purves sings with great flexibility, never hectoring.

Mehta is fascinating as the boy; that he is also one of the Angels suggests the character being inserted into the action by the meddling Angels. Mehta is passionate in his love scenes, but a little cool and controlled; ever the artists at one remove - experiencing and noting. Of course, the vocal timbre also brings this.

Rebecca Jo Loeb and Allan Clayton as the other two Angels, doubling Marie and Joseph, are equally fine. The three Angels form a sort of chorus at times, the three voices functioning as one - a counter tenor, a mezzo-soprano and a high tenor.

The recording was made live from two performances, though there is now significant extraneous noise. When not following the libretto I found it difficult to apprehend the words at time, though everything becomes clear if you do have the text at hand.

Benjamin conducts, eliciting a superb performance from singers and orchestra, and clearly relishing the variety of seductive textures, by turns erotic and violent.

Just because someone writes dramatic orchestra music doesn't mean that they can write good operas, simply adding voices doesn't work. Benjamin shows in this work that he clearly knows and loves the genre. Written on Skin is a bigger piece than Into the Little Hill but it builds on that work's clarity, structure and understanding of form. Benjamin and Crimp's work fits into the canon of the operatic tradition, but it is not a backward looking piece. Benjamin and Crimp have, like all great operatic creators, re-made the form for themselves today, for us.

This is contemporary opera for adults, written by a partnership who clearly understand how the genre works and how to get the best from it. This might not be the story that everyone expected for Benjamin's first full length opera; it is strong meat, vivid and strongly characterised. It requires some attention and work on first listening. But repays the attention completely. This is what contemporary opera ought to be, using the resources of the operatic tradition for contemporary expressive purposes. Benjamin and Crimp's work is little short of a masterwork.

The second disc of the set is completed with Benjamin's Duet for Piano and Orchestra a concertante piece with Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing the solo piano part and George Benjamin conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. The work was commissioned for the 2008 Lucerne Festival with Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing the solo part.  Benjamin uses a somewhat reduced orchestra, with no violins, and exploits the piano's range capacity and virtuosic capacity to create a piece where piano and orchestra are equal partners. The result is highly dramatic, you feel that there is an underlying story perhaps. It certainly makes a highly satisfying short coda to the opera.

George Benjamin (born 1960) - Written on Skin (2012) [90.38]
The Protector - Christopher Purves (baritone)
Agnes - Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
Angel 1 / the Boy - Bejun Mehta (counter-tenor)
Angel 2 / Marie - Rebecca Jo Loeb (mezzo-soprano)
Angel 3 / Joseph - Allan Clayton (tenor)
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
George Benjamin (conductor)

George Benjamin - Duet (2008) [12.05]
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Mahler Chamber Orchestra
George Benjamin (conductor)

Recorded live 7, 12 and 15 July 2012 at the Grand Theatre de Provence, Festival d'Aix-en-Provence.
Recordings made by Radio France.

NIMBUS NI 5885/6 2 CD's

See also my interview with George Benjamin.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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