United States Benjamin, Written on Skin: Opera Philadelphia Orchestra / Corrado Rovaris (conductor), Opera Philadelphia, Academy of Music, Philadelphia, 18.2.2018. (RP)
Agnès – Lauren Snouffer
Protector – Mark Stone
First Angel & Boy – Anthony Roth Costanzo
Second Angel & Marie – Krisztina Szabó
Third Angel & John – Alasdair Kent
Director – William Kerley
Set & Costume Design – Tom Rogers
Lighting Design – Howard Hudson
Wig & Make-Up Design – David Zimmerman
Production Stage Manager – Lisa Anderson
It helps to know something about the plot of Written on Skin.
A rich and powerful man, the Protector desires to impress others and immortalize himself through art. He invites the Boy, an illuminator of manuscripts, into his home and bids his trophy wife, Agnès, whom he regards as a mere piece of property, to welcome him. At first disdainful of the interloper, the woman’s passions are aroused and then sated. Emboldened, she asks her husband for a kiss. Only a child asks for a kiss, he responds. Later, he confronts the artist demanding the truth. To protect her, the Boy lies. Agnès later chastises the Boy declaring that he lied to save himself, not her. Upon learning the facts, the Protector kills the artist and serves his heart to his wife for dinner. Agnès tells him that nothing will ever take the taste of the Boy’s heart out of her mouth and leaps to her death.
You might find such sordid business on the front page of any tabloid nowadays, but it is in fact the tale of one Guillem de Cabestany. The medieval troubadour of that name seems to have lived a less eventful life, but the legend also appears in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron and in the Cantos of Ezra Pound. It was the inspiration for George Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin, with a libretto by Martin Crimp. The title refers to illuminated manuscripts created on parchment made of skin that the Boy creates.
The opera blurs the past and present. Modern time is evoked by a trio of angels whose commentary begins and ends the opera, who haunt the Protector in his dreams and ruminate on a god that makes a man ashamed to be human. The libretto adds to the sense of dislocation as the protagonists often speak in the third person, while the first person is used sparingly for the scenes involving seduction, passion, betrayal or revenge. Crimp also uses alliteration, the very sound of words and even their placement on the page to create an edgy atmosphere.
The composer, born in 1960, was a student of Messiaen, and at the age of 20 had his first orchestral work, Ringed by the Flat Horizon, performed at The Proms. Written on Skin premiered in 2012 at Aix-en-Provence and was later seen in London, Amsterdam and Toulouse. Few contemporary works have been greeted with such enthusiasm as this opera. Critics have exhausted their vocabularies in pronouncing it to be the work of a genius and the most important opera of the century.
In mood, and to a certain extent style, there is a connection to Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, although Benjamin eschews the impressionistic ambiguity of the French composer. His textures are lean and transparent. The colors that he creates are vibrant and exotic: the bass viol played at the upper ends of its range, the glass harmonica (invented by Philadelphian Benjamin Franklin), a typewriter, pebbles, the mandolin, tablas. He sets the text with pinpoint precision in a narrative fashion, giving ample space for consonants to sound, although shreds of melody are heard.
Opera Philadelphia’s staging of the opera was extraordinarily effective. Bathed in a soft white light, the stage is dominated by a large cube that opens to reveal various rooms of the castle. A Gothic realism prevails, except for the illuminated boxes that represent the beautiful, almost mystical books and their pages. The vibrancy of medieval stained glass was created by jewel-toned shards of colored glass imbedded in the walls. In the final scenes, the Boy’s heart emitted a lurid red glow as it was ripped from his body and served on a silver platter.
William Kerley’s concept was similarly inspired. The rotation of the box created the sensation of time travel as the action leaped across centuries. The characterizations are at times realistic and at others stylized, such as when Agnès stands frozen in a tower window poised to jump to her death. Costumes are also of the period. That of the Boy, a jaunty, colorful tunic, is as richly colored as the stained-glass windows. Agnès’ dresses progress from white to muted red, subtly telegraphing her transformation from innocence to independence. The Protector is in stolid gray, while angels are in black.
The cast was also ideal. Soprano Lauren Snouffer was fearless as Agnès, able to extinguish all vibrato in her crystalline voice when called upon to do so. Dramatically, she made a seamless progression from naive ignorance to a wanton lasciviousness, akin to that of Salome and her obsession over the head of John the Baptist. With his clear, penetrating countertenor, Anthony Ross Costanzo was equally dauntless as the Boy. Almost androgynous in the early scenes, he assumed a potent masculinity in response to the awakened sensuality of Agnès.
Mark Stone’s Proctor was human instead of an ogre: a man of his time who was betrayed and sought vengeance. His robust baritone deftly negotiated the role’s stylistic demands. Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó vividly depicted Agnès’ sister, Marie, who attempts to alert the Protector to his wife’s erotic escapades. The fine tenor Alasdair Kent made more of an impression as an angel, rather than in the brief role of Marie’s husband.
From the orchestra emerged complex sonorities that created a scintillating undercurrent of sound. Corrado Rovaris maintained a perfect balance between pit and stage. In lesser hands those exotic sounds could have overwhelmed the singers. That was never the case.
Some have written that Philadelphia is emerging as a bold, exciting operatic epicenter for the twenty-first century. I have not been on the scene for a while, and when I was a regular attendee in Philadelphia it was opera in the grand style, cast with international stars of the era. Works of the sort and caliber of Written on Skin were rare then, perhaps still are. Returning to the Academy of Music years later, all I can say is that this was a superb production of an arresting opera. History will take care of the rest.
For another review by Bernard Jacobson, click here.