United States Mostly Mozart Festival 2015 (1), George Benjamin, Written on Skin (U.S. stage premiere): Soloists, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (conductor), Katie Mitchell (director), David H. Koch Theater, New York City. 13.8.2015 (BH)
George Benjamin, Written on Skin
Christopher Purves, The Protector
Barbara Hannigan, Agnès
Tim Mead, Angel 1/Boy
Victoria Simmonds, Angel 2/Marie
Robert Murray, Angel 3/John
David Alexander Parker, Laura Harling, Peter Hobday, Sarah Northgraves: Angel Archivists
Katie Mitchell, Director
Dan Ayling, Associate Director
Vicki Mortimer, Scenic and Costume Design
Jon Clark, Lighting Design
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Alan Gilbert, Conductor
As the curtain came down on Written on Skin, I will recall that moment of exhilaration for years. In its first United States performances, George Benjamin and Martin Crimp’s gripping creation was the centerpiece of this year’s Mostly Mozart Festival, which has become increasingly daring—and thus more vital—in recent years.
The dilemma of opera is that, to succeed, it requires its mighty and disparate elements to function simultaneously. That can be a lot to ask. Music and text are primary, but without singers, musicians, and a conductor who can take the notes and words from the page and transform them into something an audience can grasp, what’s the point? Without a stage director who understands the material, is willing to think about its possibilities, and is open to risks, who cares? I suspect that somewhere in Benjamin’s opera there is a mediocre, uncommunicative experience awaiting, but in this version—brilliantly directed by Katie Mitchell—that did not happen.
Commissioned by the Aix-en-Provence Festival and three other opera companies, the sole requirement was that the work have a tie to Provence, and when Benjamin and Crimp found this harsh 12th-century tale, they trusted their instincts. The story is a classic triangle: a husband (The Protector) decides to have an artist produce an illuminated manuscript for his wife (Agnès), but she falls in love with the illuminator (Boy), arousing the husband’s jealousy. Without giving away the inevitable yet shocking climax, it does not end well.
As the Protector, Christopher Purves gave many passages a slight edge, as if his voice had been roughly sanded by his own anguish and anger. As the Boy (who is transformed into an angel), Tim Mead’s pure intonation signaled the innocence of a young man who has no idea that he is teetering on a brink. And Barbara Hannigan—with whom I am most familiar from her magnificent work in Ligeti and Grisey—created Agnès as a woman who knows what is coming, but cannot turn away her gaze. All three carried their roles as if gently shaped by forces beyond their control.
This odd sensation was helped by angels Victoria Simmonds (also in a brief role as Marie) and Robert Murray (as John), as well as four members of an expert chorus (David Alexander Parker, Laura Harling, Peter Hobday, and Sarah Northgraves), all navigating Benjamin’s lustrous textures with unwavering skill and artistry. The angels were usually seen in an adjacent chamber with tables and coat racks, lit with fluorescent bulbs (the moody lighting design was by Jon Clark). Adding yet another dimension, they functioned as a contemporary Greek chorus, venturing back centuries to help the cast into Vicki Mortimer’s earthy costumes, or gently shadowing their movements around her bi-level, four-chambered set.
Mitchell’s assured direction (assisted by Dan Ayling) seemed to take no moment for granted, giving meaning to every step or hand movement. And in the final scene (I’m being deliberately vague), when the plot indicated downward motion, Mitchell emphasized it by having the cast—contrarily—drift upward in elegant, cinematic counterpoint.
Full disclosure: in 2014 I saw the DVD of this production, with two of the principals (the magnificent Bejun Mehta as the Boy), the same ensemble, and the composer showing formidable conducting skills. That said, this production must be counted as one of the high points of Alan Gilbert’s time in New York. His patience in extracting the score’s sensuous, sorrowful tone, and agility in leading both singers and musicians through Benjamin’s unusually imaginative colors, cannot be overstated. Yes, I’m aware of protests about Gilbert in standard repertoire, but never mind: I’ll take him in this score over a Beethoven symphony any day of the week. There are plenty of conductors who would find Benjamin’s glittering opus completely flummoxing.
The musicians of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra seemed to have completely inhaled Benjamin’s rarified incense, and their ability to meet his requests seemed limitless. There is much to be said for engaging an ensemble (with many young players) that has spent hundreds of hours assimilating a complex score. And Crimp’s libretto is as finely polished as a slice of agate. He and Benjamin had worked together before, on Into the Little Hill (2006), which the Mostly Mozart Festival included on a sensational concert a few days later.
It was heartening to see a huge crowd on hand (the lobby of the theater was such a maelstrom that I had difficulty finding my date), and afterward, to hear and read so many positive comments. Yes, a composer pal expressed admiration for Benjamin’s chiseled score, but found it almost too polished, lacking some unexpected rough edges. Another erudite friend thought the wife’s role could have been more fully developed; there is little doubt that in the 21st century, she might not have behaved in the same way. (Or perhaps, considering the prevalence of domestic violence, she might have.) Nevertheless, when a contemporary work connects to an audience with such immediacy, it’s worth paying attention.