Sunday 17 March 2013

Written on Skin at Covent Garden

Barbara Hannigan and Christopher Purves,Written on Skin, Aix-en-Provence © ArtComArt 2012
Having interviewed George Benjamin and reviewed the CD of his opera Written on Skin it was with much anticipation that we went along to the opera's 3rd performance in London at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on Saturday 16th March 2013. Katie Mitchell's production has already been seen in Aix-en-Provence, Toulouse and Amsterdam. The Covent Garden cast, Christopher Purves, Barbara Hannigan, Bejun Mehta, Allan Clayton and Victoria Simmonds, were all from the original Aix-en-Provence run and George Benjamin conducted.

When listening to the opera on CD I had been aware of the stylisation of the piece; Martin Crimp's libretto has the characters speaking in the third person and the text mixes contemporary and period references. In our interview, Benjamin had talked about the need for an opera libretto to be out of kilter with reality, not to be completely naturalistic. But when listening, I had simply taken these as stylisations, they did not feature in the way I visualised the piece.

By contrast Katie Mitchell, who seems to be an analytical director in many ways but one capable of getting performances of great intensity, had taken these issues and made them a central piece of her production. In an interview in the programme book she talked about the need to find a reason why the characters talk the way they do, and why the two time periods (modern and ancient). That the tone of the opera is a like a form of surrealism, the surrealism of dreams. In the interview she says, 'I thought if the narrator-characters relate the things they're doing, they must have done them before. So why not make them come back from the dead and ask them to repeat their past gestures?'  This is the key concept in the production.

Vicky Mortimer's dazzling set had two levels on it and each level had two rooms. Two were set in the 13th century and two were in the present. The three Angels of the opera were joined by four other Angel Archivists. They were engaged in the act of re-creating the past, with the very actors of the original resurrected. The Angel Archivists dressed the characters, set the scenes and directed the action. They were involved far more than might be implied from Crimp's text where the three singing Angels act more as a Greek chorus.

The division of the set was unequal, and varied between each act, with the largest space on the ground floor being devoted to the 13th century, next to this was the modern 'green room', then above a huge archive space and a smaller room from the 13th century. For the last act a very modern staircase appeared. Throughout the action of the opera (in the 13th century rooms), there was constant action in the other rooms. This, of course, being a feature of Mitchell's productions that the action takes place against a constant backdrop of activity. In the 'green room' the action was naturalistic as the Angel Archivists prepared for the next scene, in the room above the action was all done in slow motion. 

Frankly I found this all rather distracting, and the concept kept getting in the way of my seeing the opera. In one or two places, the action veered away from the text. Crimp's text only gives you a glimpse of the love scene between the Boy and Agnes, and the murder of the Boy is not shown, it becomes and orchestral interlude. (A very graphically violent one). Mitchell's production altered this, so that we see the love scene between the Boy (Bejun Mehta) and Agnes (Barbara Hannigan) in graphic detail, and the Protector (Christopher Purves) killing the Boy is done in front of us. I did wonder whether this was necessary, do we have to see everything that is described in the music. Crimp's text leaves space for Benjamin's music to take over, but Mitchell seems to have felt the need to explain everything.

Visually, Mortimer had clearly delineated the two realms, giving the 13th century a warm, soft glow with the modern day a hard edged black and white. What I missed, in visual terms, was any reference to the illuminations, these are described in the text but we never see them (the characters have them to look at but they are correct size so make little visual impact in a theatre). I could imagine a different production might make more of this visual imagery.

A reviewer can gripe away for ever about details of a production but what they must come down to in the end is the performances. And Mitchell has inspired performances of rare intensity from her cast. The raison d'etre of her production works because those acting in it are vividly involved and capture us.

It helps that Benjamin's music is so dramatic and so dazzling. In the theatre, the balance between orchestra and singers was far better than on CD, so that the instrumental backdrop to some of the dialogue was magical in the way the music was a bare thread of sound. Benjamin uses a large array of instruments, but you are never aware of the details of this, instead he weaves them into a gorgeous, evocative thread that weaves its way through the opera. Underneath the drama, there is a strong feel for form and for the dramatic flow, but in the theatre you simply experience this as one element of the on going drama.

Christopher Purves is an intensely direct performer and this meant that his playing of the Protector had a directness which appealed to us, even when we could not sympathise with him. We were witnessing a man dealing with a situation that was not only out of his control, but outside his conception. His wife, Barbara Hannigan, was growing into a feeling, emotional person and we witnessed that transformation in Hannigan's performance. In the scene where she starts the seduction of the Boy (Bejun Mehta) there was something predatory about her manner, as if the Boy didn't really matter. But in their love scene at the end of act one, the intensity between them was palpable, an intensity that came through the music, not just applied to it.

The sound of Mehta's voice was an essential component of the entire opera, the rich, ethereal sound which could merge with Hannigan's in duet but remain so different. Mehta's character was clearly conflicted, he had to live in both the 13th century and the present. Inevitably a little distant, but he too was caught up in the intense drama. His finally monologue was profoundly poignant as he described the final illumination of the woman falling.

Victoria Simmonds and Allan Clayton were the modern Angels, stage managing everything, and doing so beautifully with a rare clarity.

Not every composer is a good conductor, but Benjamin conducted his opera in a masterly fashion, ensuring that the drama flowed and that when the singers were singing, the orchestra allowed them space; this wasn't a contemporary opera where the singers had to scream all the time. But in the orchestral interludes, he brought out the strong savagery which is in the orchestral writing too.

The opera was played without an interval and we were gripped from beginning to end. I look forward with interest to other director's takes on this fascinating piece, and feel that an ideal production might be less analytical. But Mitchell, Benjamin and their cast gave us a performance of rare expressiveness and intensity.

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