A Libretto to Envy, Written on Skin

FranceFrance G. Benjamin, Written on Skin: Soloists, Capitole National Orchestra, Franck Ollu (conductor), Thèâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, 25.11.2012 (JMI)

New Production Toulouse Capitole, coproduction with Festival Aix-en-Provence, London Covent Garden, Amsterdam Nederlandse Opera, and Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.

Direction: Katie Mitchell
Sets and Costumes: Vicki Mortimer
Lighting: Jon Clark


Protector: Christopher Purves
Agnès: Barbara Hannigan
First Angel/Young Boy: Tim Mead
Second Angel/Mary: Victoria Simmonds
Third Angel/ John: Allan Clayton

Picture courtesy Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, © Patrice Nin

During the long tenure of Nicolas Joel, the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse did not pay much attention to contemporary opera. His successor, Frédéric Chambert, is more open to modern works and such that might qualify for that sobriquet. This season will bring two operas from 20th century (Albert Herring and L’Enfant et les Sortileges) and Written on Skin, by George Benjamin, which received its world premiere last July at Aix.

Written on Skin, Benjamin’s second opera, is again a collaboration with librettist Martin Crimp, with whom he already worked on his first, Into the Little Hill. The libretto is based on the 12th century Occitan work Le cœur mangé, by the Catalan troubadour Guilhèm de Cabestany. Both at its premiere in Aix, as later in Amsterdam and now in Toulouse, the opera has been very well received both by the audience and the critic, and there is good reason for this.

Martin Crimp’s libretto of short and intense texts is original and has great dramatic power. All the singers on stage get a piece of its goodness which gives a lively pace to the drama. Well written, effective librettos like this are rare nowadays, since the job of opera scriptwriter seems to have all but disappeared. I find Martin Crimp’s work a real discovery.

George Benjamin’s music is not easily followed by a traditional audience, but it is more ‘friendly’ than what they have come to fear from his contemporary colleagues. It fits and supports the libretto superbly and is aided by Benjamin’s great virtue of knowing how to write for singers. The five characters, especially the three protagonists, sing in a reasonable tessitura and are allowed to excel in their vocal performances.

The action takes place in medieval times. The Protector, a rich and violent man, welcomes a young man in his house who will illustrate a book intended to show his—the Protector’s—great deeds in life. The title of the opera refers to the times when books were written and illustrated on skins, i.e. parchment. The Boy illustrates the book but also kindles a special, warmly reciprocated relationship with Agnes, the Protector’s wife. The Protector discovers his betrayal and does what needs to be done: He pulls out the Boy’s heart, cooks it, and kindly asks his wife to eat it. Le coeur mangé, indeed! The opera ends on a high note when Agnès escapes the murder her husband had planned instead of dessert. She jumps out the window whereupon she is saved by convenient angels.

Katie Mitchell’s production is the one used at Aix en Provence and in Amsterdam. On the left we see the action of the angels, on the right the Protector’s house. The set of stairs of the house have disappeared in the Toulouse production, presumably because of the stage-size at the Capitole. The costumes—changed in plain sight—are functional, the lighting simple and efficient. The final scene is most excellent; as if Katie Mitchell had taken a page out of Robert Wilson’s playbook.

At Aix and in Amsterdam the musical direction was shared between Mr. Benjamin and Franck Ollu. The latter was solely in charge for the Toulouse run.  He knows the opera inside out and offered an excellent reading. The opera never lost strength or dramatic tension at any time, and the Capitole orchestra gave an excellent performance.

The Protector is not a particularly thorny character to manage, tessitura-wise, but that didn’t make British baritone Christopher Purves’ very expressive portrayal any less convincing. The character of Agnès was performed by Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan. Just off a huge success as Lulú in Brussels, this excellent singing actress, remarkable singer, and very attractive light-lyric soprano convinced and allured in every way on stage. Mme. Hannigan has made the contemporary opera her workhorse and she is as good as it as can be.

The Boy, a part for countertenor, was premiered by Bejun Mehta. In Toulouse Tim Mead took over and did quite well in this part that has so very little to do with what we know from counter tenors in baroque opera. The supporting roles—Victoria Simmonds as Marie and the Second Angel, and Allan Clayton as John and Third Angel—met the high standards of the entire production.

José Mª Irurzun