A Splendid Concert Version of this George Benjamin Opera (but One Does Miss the Staging)

SpainSpain Benjamin, Written on Skin: Mahler Chamber Orchestra, George Benjamin (conductor), Teatro Real, Madrid 17.3.2016. (JMI)

Written on Skin in concert

Concert Version


Protector: Christopher Purves
Agnès: Barbara Hannigan
Boy/First Angel: Tim Mead
Marie/Second Angel: Victoria Simmonds
John/Third Angel: Robert Murray

This is George Benjamin’s second opera, written in collaboration with librettist Martin Crimp, who worked with Mr. Benjamin on his first opera, Into the Little Hill. The libretto is based on a work by the 12th-century troubadour Guilhem Cabestany, Le Coeur Mangé. Both at the July 2012 premiere of the opera in Aix-en-Provence and at the subsequent performances in Amsterdam, London, Toulouse, Paris, Munich, Vienna, Toronto, New York and Tanglewood, it has been very well received by the public and critics alike. This success has now been repeated in Spain, where it was offered on consecutive days in Barcelona and Madrid. Unfortunately, it has been done here in a concert version, and this is an opera that benefits from a stage performance. I had the opportunity of seeing it staged in Toulouse in 2012, and the concert version is not completely satisfying.

George Benjamin’s music isn’t easy to follow for a very traditional audience, but it is more “friendly” than what we are used to from some of his colleagues. It serves the libretto well and has the great virtue of being beautifully written for voices, with reasonable tessitura for the five characters, especially the three main ones.

The action takes place in medieval times. The Protector, a rich and violent man, brings into his house a Boy, who has accepted the job of creating a book about the Protector’s family; the title of the opera refers to the time when books were written and illustrated on paper made from sheepskin. The Boy starts to work on the book, creates a special relationship with Agnès, the Protector’s wife, and they fall in love. Upon discovering this betrayal, the Protector kills the Boy, roasts his heart, and forces his wife to eat it (Le Coeur Mangé). The opera ends with Agnès fleeing from her irascible husband, and throwing herself from a window. This conclusion is almost incomprehensible in the concert version.

George Benjamin has led most performances of the opera, and did so here. His conducting was excellent, with an obvious mastery of the score and of the orchestra, which allowed the singers’ voices to reach the audience perfectly. There was always tension and emotion in his baton, and he drew a terrific performance from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which is the orchestra founded by Claudio Abbado.

This cast has sung the opera on numerous occasions, and they had no problems in giving life to the work within the limitations of a concert version. All the singers sang without a score.

British baritone Christopher Purves made a very convincing interpretation of the Protector, singing with great expressiveness. This is not a particularly complicated character from the point of view of pure tessitura, but Mr. Purves was superb. He has always been the protagonist, and there is no question about his mastery of the score.

Agnès was played by Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, one of the most interesting artists today. In addition to being a great singer, she is an outstanding actress. Ms. Hannigan has been Agnès since the opera premiered, and I find her irreplaceable in the part. She has made contemporary opera her warhorse, and triumphed here.

The character of the Boy is written for a countertenor. At the premiere in Aix-en-Provence, Bejun Mehta was his interpreter, but since then it has almost always been Tim Mead in the role; he also doubles as First Angel. Generally, we identify the countertenor voice with Baroque and coloratura singing, but here we are in a very different mode. Tim Mead was excellent, and demonstrated a perfect knowledge of his part.

The secondary characters were beautifully served by mezzo-soprano Victoria Simmonds (Marie and Second Angel) and tenor Robert Murray (John and Third Angel).

Jose M. Irurzun

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