Benjamin’s New Opera Acclaimed a Masterpiece

United KingdomUnited Kingdom George Benjamin’s Written on Skin: Soloists, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, George Benjamin (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 18.3.2013. (MB)

Agnès – Barbara Hannigan
Protector – Christopher Purves
First Angel / Boy – Bejun Mehta
Second Angel / Marie – Victoria Simmonds
Third Angel / John – Allan Clayton

Katie Mitchell (director)
Vicki Mortimer (designs)
Jon Clark (lighting)

Near-unanimous approval tends to make me suspicious. However I might have tried, though – and, to be honest, I did not try very hard – I found myself unable to dissent. If George Benjamin’s new opera, Written on Skin, does not necessarily knock one for six, sixty even, in the way that a Birtwistle opera would, such is not Benjamin’s subtler – not superior, just different – way. The Mask of Orpheus and Gawain, for instance, make a cataclysmic impression akin to one’s first Wagner; in a sense, Benjamin requires closer, more attentive listening, not unlike that necessitated by Pelléas et Mélisande, and, just as important, readiness to consider what opera might be, what it might do, where it might yet take us. (Not, I hasten to add, that Birtwistle does not benefit greatly from the most attentive listening, but one might entirely miss the point of Benjamin without it.) Insofar as one can possibly feel emboldened to use the word after a single hearing, Written on Skin is a masterpiece. Perhaps most intriguingly, it seems to mark more of a beginning, Benjamin’s chamber opera Into the Little Hill notwithstanding, than a culmination. It may be the latter too, in that in retrospect, much of Benjamin’s œuvre seems to have been heading in this direction, but the opportunities opened up seem greater still.

Martin Crimp’s libretto derives inspiration from a thirteenth-century Occitan ballad, though no more than Benjamin’s music does it attempt any manner of pastiche. The story, at least on one level, is dealt with easily. A landowner, The Protector ,invites The Boy into his house and household to write an illustrated book, to be written on skin, a book that would chronicle and celebrate a good life and good deeds. Initially suspicious, the Protector’s Wife – his ‘property’, as he tells us – falls both for book and Boy, their combination a liberation for her, in a sense an instantiation of personhood. They become lovers, as documented by the Boy in his book. Though attracted to the Boy himself, the Protector kills him and serves Agnès a meal that includes the Boy’s heart. What is intended as revenge, as a way to subordinate her once again, provokes defiance, for Agnès is able to declare that the taste of the Boy’s heart will never leave her mouth. She frustrates her husband’s attempt to kill her by taking her own life.

So far so good, but in many ways, what most interests are the framing and the questioning. An opening Chorus of Angels takes the audience back eight centuries and bring to life the Protector and Agnès; one of them takes on the role of the Boy. The angels intervene and comment, drawing a parallel with Biblical Creation: man is invented and punished; woman is invented and blamed. Who provokes the dreams of the Protector, in which he learns of a secret page to the book, Agnès depicted therein ‘gripping the Boy in a secret bed’? There are many other such questions one might and should ask, but they are perhaps to be subsumed within the striking realisation that writing itself is at the heart of the drama. Fate in the guise of the pitiless angels is strong, but narrative formulations in which the protagonists speak of themselves in the third person present not only a degree of artificiality – ‘naïve’ art, in Schiller’s celebrated formulation, being no longer possible – but compel the audience to write and to interrogate its own dramas. We are involved in something old, strange, and yet new; at the same time, we are both of the Angels’ party and repelled by it. Benjamin’s music, is of course instrumental – in more than one sense – in accomplishing that too, if never straightforwardly. The fifteen scenes may in some sense be considered ‘cinematic’ but they are still more of the theatre.

But before coming to that, let us consider Katie Mitchell’s staging. The thing with ‘one size fits all’ metatheatricality is that, not unlike a stopped clock, from time to time it fits. And given the horror of her ENO Idomeneo, it is a matter of gratitude that Mitchell did not on this occasion try something different. I cannot in all honesty say that I perceived a particular need for the extras to be doing what they were doing rather than something else, at least for much of the time, but that, I think, was the point. A sense of something ongoing, indifferent to mere human concerns, angels as bureaucrats, one might say, came across so strongly for the very reason that Mitchell had paid such attention to apparently irrelevant – though who is to say? – detail. Action proceeding on different levels, physical as well as otherwise, here assists the story or stories, Vicki Mortimer’s contrasting ‘old’ and ‘new’ designs assisting equally in that respect.

I shall limit my remarks concerning Benjamin’s music, remarks which must necessarily remain generalised; I have only heard it once and have not seen the score. Nevertheless, even from a single hearing, it not only accomplished a necessary union of intellectual and emotional involvement; it enticed one to hear the work again and again. Sonorities old and new beguile, though it is worth reiterating that there is nothing of the pastiche even, indeed especially, to the use of an ‘old’ instrument such as the bass viol. Its Passion resonances may be unavoidable, but what most strikes is its apparent contemporaneity, to the action, to us, to wherever or whenever we might be. Likewise the use towards the end of glass harmonica might initially have one think ‘Mozart’, but what it does has apparently little to do with those strange miniature masterpieces Mozart composed under very particular circumstances. The ethereal quality remains, to be sure, but almost takes on an electronic- or, perhaps better, post-electronic quality, seducing our ears, expanding their range, hinting even at sounds we have yet to perceive. Stockhausen may seem quite distant, and in most senses he is, yet perhaps his ghost in that sense haunts.

Perhaps more striking still, however, are the use not of ‘unusual’ sounds, but of the orchestra as commonly understood and indeed of post-tonal – use what adjective one will – harmonic relations. One hears references, conscious or otherwise, above all to Pelléas and to Wozzeck. I was delighted to see Benjamin mention both works in a programme interview, having reached that conclusion for myself – but it is only occasionally, for instance in a Wozzeck-like set of intervals, that one can say for certain, and even when one can, it is admirably unclear what that might mean, if anything. The understatedness must surely have some inspiration in Pelléas, the only non-Benjamin opera the composer has conducted, making one listen, drawing one in, preparing the way for the moments of cataclysm, which register with power all the greater. The pacing and drawing of climax suggests, no embodies, a mastery of musico-dramatic composition to rank with some of the greatest. Vocal writing is grateful, yet again makes no deluded references to styles no longer possible.

About an hour and a half, moreover, proves once again a wise length for an opera. There are great operas that last for much longer, of course – operas from which one would rather slit one’s throat rather than have a single bar cut from them. However, one thinks more often of brevity in terms of its lack than its excess. (I vigorously, even furiously, dissent, but I have even heard people talk of longueurs in Elektra.) Janáček tends to have it just about right; so does Berg in Wozzeck. Wagner never fails in that respect – well, perhaps in Rienzi, though we should do well to grant ‘Meyerbeer’s greatest opera’ the opportunity to be heard ‘in full’, whatever that might be. Yet, as everyone knows, Wagner offers the most dangerous of models. Mozart and Monteverdi are similarly unapproachable, perhaps still more so. It is far better, then, to have an informed audience wondering whether there might have been room for a little more expansiveness than to have it constantly checking its watches.

Performances were excellent. I assume Christopher Purves to have been a little under the weather, since so fine a singer would not normally have had recurring problems at the top of his range. Dramatic truth shone through nevertheless; it was at the time of hearing – and I do not mean this in a restrictive fashion – impossible to imagine anyone else in his role of Protector. Bejun Mehta and Barbara Hannigan both proved sensational as the Boy and Agnès. By now, at this stage on the production’s tour, this must almost be a repertoire work for them, but their combination of musical and dramatic intelligence felt as keen as I imagine it might have done at the premiere. Ethereal beauty, sensuous allure, and an inscrutable blend of apparent naïveté and knowingness marked Mehta’s Boy. Hannigan’s musico-dramatic excellence, her journey from subservience through sexual liberation to mastery – a deliberately gendered choice of word – over her husband were charted equally by stage presence, vocal line, and communication of the text. Victoria Simmonds and Allan Clayton offered admirable support as angels and as Agnès’s sister and brother-in-law.

Last yet anything but least, the performance of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House was breathtaking, not least in the sense that one had to remind oneself after the event that this was ‘new music’. Benjamin’s score was performed with both special, loving attention, every phrase sounding apparently as it should – again, I should stress, there is a degree of supposition here, without actually seeing it for myself – and the whole despatched as if, in the best sense, this were staple operatic fare. By that, I mean not to say that there was the slightest hint of routine, but rather that the confidence to express and indeed to seduce was paramount. If such playing did not convince, convert, then it is difficult to know what would.

It really is past time, then, to smash the museum, a museum all the more constraining – as any good Feuerbachian will tell you – because its alienation is imaginary. Opera houses – all of them, certainly not just Covent Garden – devote an inordinate amount of time to works of little consequence, endlessly repeated, for no other apparent reason than that historically they have formed part of the repertoire. What, then, sells out? Written on Skin and The Minotaur? Whenever one speaks to opera-goers – as opposed, doubtless, to people who attend ‘the opera’ as a social occasion – they thirst for new repertoire and for modernist classics, many of them unstaged in whichever house, city, even country one is considering. Would anyone really care if another note of Donizetti were never heard again? Many of us would be relieved. In any case, surely it is about time that Nono, Henze, Stockhausen, Busoni, Dallapiccola, Schoenberg, even Haydn and Gluck, had a chance, still more so composers who – cue a deep intake of breath – have the temerity still to be alive. What people talk about, care about, are willing even to travel across the globe for, are great reimaginings of repertoire masterworks: Parsifal from Gatti and Herheim, for instance revivals of unjustly neglected masterworks – take the Theater an der Wien’s recent Mathis der Maler , and great contemporary musical drama. Opportunities to hear the nth high C may be relegated to the circus. Boulez, from whom we still of course await an opera, once spoke of his admiration for the Red Guard, since it was willing to destroy. If audiences are to renew themselves, it will be through works such as those of Benjamin, Birtwistle, et al. – works which themselves renew the operatic form to which so many of us are devoted.

Still, Kasper Holten’s new regime seems to be offering something of a new dawn for the Royal Opera. The recently announced 2013-14 season an undoubted improvement upon what has gone before. Contrasts with the artistic near-nullity on offer next year in Paris and Vienna is stark. Let us hope, then, that this splendid achievement will be built upon and that never again shall we hear that a new production of a wonderful opera such as Weber’s Oberon – hardly an avant-gardist work! – has been cancelled in order to make room for the third run within a single season of La traviata. If one’s reaction to a great opera performance, whether it be a newly-minted Figaro under Sir Colin Davis or a genuinely new work, is to wish to hear it again immediately, then that is what we need to feel about opera seasons as a whole. Let us toast, then, the Royal Opera’s plans to place new opera at the very heart of what it does, of what it is, and of what it will be.

Mark Berry