Saturday 14 January 2017

Concentrated intensity: George Benjamin and Martin Crimp's Written on Skin revived at Covent Garden

Barbara Hannigan - Written on Skin, The Royal Opera © ROH/Stephen Cummiskey, 2012
Barbara Hannigan - Written on Skin,
The Royal Opera © ROH/Stephen Cummiskey, 2012
George Benjamin Written on Skin; Barbara Hannigan, Iestyn Davies, Christopher Purves, Victoria Simmonds, Mark Padmore, dir: Katie Mitchell, cond: George Benjamin; Royal Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 13 2017
Star rating: 5.0

Slightly re-cast revival sheds new light on Benjamin's powerful opera

Having received its UK premiere in 2013, George Benjamin and Martin Crimp's opera Written on Skin returned to Covent Garden on 13 January 2017 in Katie Mitchell's production. Benjamin again conducted and Christopher Purves, Barbara Hannigan and Victoria Simmonds returned to their roles, with Iestyn Davies and Mark Padmore new to the opera at Covent Garden. Time has passed, and changes in casting inevitably shed different light on a work so the revival formed a welcome chance to re-assess the opera and the production. (See my review of the 2013 performance).

Katie Mitchell's production, with dazzling designs by Vicki Mortimer, remains one which I can understand but cannot love. The archly analytical nature of the production, with the need to rationalise everything and provide a coherent back-story, means that we receive rather too much information. I was less worried this time about the scenes in the modern part of the set (the Angels and the Angel Archivists preparing the props for the reenactment of the story). But by giving us multiple points of view, Mitchell is able to ensure that every detail of George Benjamin's stunning score is illustrated. The orchestral interludes which Benjamin provides, covering moments like Agnes' (Barbara Hannigan) seduction of the Boy (Iestyn Davies), and the Protector's (Christopher Purves) murder of the Boy, are illustrated in great detail when in fact much of the drama and emotional argument is in the orchestra.

Christopher Purves - Written on Skin, The Royal Opera © ROH/Stephen Cummiskey, 2012
Christopher Purves - Written on Skin,
The Royal Opera © ROH/Stephen Cummiskey, 2012
It was the orchestral detail which I noticed even more this time. For all the large number of instruments in the pit (with a great deal of percussion), Benjamin drew a remarkable transparency from the players of the Royal Opera House orchestra, which gave plenty of space for the voices. Yet in the interludes and other places, there was ferocity and intensity too. This was a score which really brought out the modern drama, yet allowed room for the voices. The sound quality which Benjamin conjures is remarkable, the range of instruments includes glass harmonica, viola da gamba, and mandolins, plus a wide range of percussion. And Benjamin's use of them is remarkably subtle, and he gets vastly different colours for different scenes, setting the emotional texture of the moment and helping differentiate between the various levels in the drama.

Unlike many contemporary composers best known for their instrumental and orchestral writing, Benjamin also writes vocal lines which are full of interest yet expressively singable. Hearing Iestyn Davies and Mark Padmore (both singers I associate with Benjamin Britten's music) singing together early on in the opera really brought out the Britten-esque nature of some of Benjamin's writing.

Davies brought a magical sense of otherness to his portrayal of the Boy, along with a real sense of humanity particularly in the moments when he was not the Boy but reverted back to the Angel. Mark Padmore was similarly a very humane Angel (and remarkably sharp John), and his performance made you regret that the role was not larger. Victoria Simmonds as the third Angel was enormously sympathetic, and transformed remarkably into the sexy Maria (Agnes sister). Barbara Hannigan and Christopher Purves repeated and developed their astonishing performances. Hannigan found an enormous range in the character from her initial almost catatonic state, to the remarkable seduction of the Boy and finally unleashing astonishing anger (and remarkable vocal virtuosity). Christopher Purves made us really understand the Protector, even though we did not sympathise, and also drew on a powerful range of anger.

The peaks of emotion in the performance were profoundly uncomfortable in just the right way, this was an evening which laid bare very deep emotions. But it was the cool nature of Iestyn Davies' voice describing the final illuminated image of Agnes caught mid-air, falling to her death, which provided the opera's last unnerving moments.

George Benjamin, Martin Crimp Written on Skin
Angel 2/Marie - Victoria Simmonds
Angel 3/John - Mark Padmore
Angel 1/The Body - Iestyn Davies
The Protector - Christopher Purves
Agnes - Barbara Hannigan
Angel Archivists - Ben Clifford, Laura Haraling, Samuel Knight, Sarah Northgrave
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Conductor - George Benjamin
Director - Katie Mitchell
Associate Director - Dan Ayling
Designer - Vicki Mortimer
Lighting Designer - Jon Clark

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