Benjamin’s Contemporary Opera of Uncertain Aim and Reach

United StatesUnited States Benjamin, Written on Skin: Soloists, Orchestra of Opera Philadelphia / Corrado Rovaris (conductor), Academy of Music, Philadelphia, 11.2.2018. (BJ)

Anthony Roth Costanzo & Mark Stone in Written on Skin (c) Kelly & Massa/Opera Philadelphia)


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 & Maker-Up Design – David Zimmerman
Stage Manager – Lisa Anderson

Given the complexity of the medium, ‘getting everything right’ is not something that can be confidently expected in the opera house. And the more I think about all the various aspects of the works and their performance that can easily get out of kilter with each other, the harder I find it to make up my mind which is the more frustrating experience: to witness a masterpiece of music theater diminished and betrayed by shortcomings in production or performance, or to wonder why outstandingly talented performers should be wasting their gifts on a work that might better have been left in decent obscurity.

There was in my judgment, as I took in the Philadelphia premiere of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, no doubt which of those two kinds of experience I was having. I know that the 58-year-old composer (and virtuoso pianist), and the playwright Martin Crimp, who wrote the libretto, enjoy high reputations; that critics around the world have greeted this, their second collaboration, with avalanches of praise; and that opera companies—at least 18 of them at last count—have competed to get on the list of those presenting it. Having encountered none of Benjamin’s music in some years—and not having enjoyed any that I heard a long time ago—I approached Written on Skin in the fervent hope that it would convert me.

In that hope I was pretty comprehensively disappointed. But under general director David B. Devan’s bold and imaginative leadership Opera Philadelphia has developed into a company that need not fear comparison with the standards of any in the country. Throughout the performance, I found it impossible to imagine that anyone other than director William Kerley, conductor Corrado Rovaris, and their cast and orchestra could have achieved anything more polished, lucid, or impassioned—while Tom Rogers’s brilliantly creative set and costumes and Howard Hudson’s evocative lighting ranked as virtually the stars of the show.

The stage was dominated by a large dark cube whose surfaces frequently opened to reveal a variety of inner spaces in which the more domestic facets of the story played out. The changes of format were managed with the utmost discretion and hardly any noise. The five principals sang with well-focused tone, and all of them conveyed the varying intensities of their roles with clear conviction.

So what am I complaining about? Well, to start with, what we are offered too vividly evokes the atmosphere of Pelléas et Mélisande, in a sort of unholy blend with a generally Wagnerian conjunction of Love and Death, to be able to present any really cogent atmosphere of its own. In the music-theater sphere, it is a counterpart to the obsession with extreme persons and emotions that dominates the novels of Joyce Carol Oates, and if you like her work you may well respond to the opera more positively than I did. George Benjamin, however, responded hardly at all to much of what was going on in the story. Being perhaps an Oates-ian kind of artist himself, he responds better to extremity, grotesquerie, and weirdness than to anything resembling normality, and the story’s moments of violent activity drew some fairly effective outbursts from his pen. But there were long stretches–amounting, I would guess, to about five-sixths of work’s total intermission-less 95-minute duration — when nothing at all seemed to be happening in the orchestra — the singers were singing and acting, and the players were maintaining a kind of featureless aural backdrop; there was nothing of the kind of mutually propulsive cut and thrust among voices, instruments, and stage pictures that characterizes real opera.

The vocal parts, meanwhile, contributed very little to the creation of characters distinct from one another, each person’s lines remaining merely generic. Potential audience involvement with the flesh-and-blood persons on stage was discouraged by frequently having them introduce their own direct speech with ‘And the man said’ or ‘And the woman said,’ presumably in search of a Verfremdungseffekt that stuck out of the generally un-Brechtian style of the work like a sore thumb. The word-setting, moreover, was saddled at many points with a deliberate avoidance of anything like legato, several words in a sentence being split off from each other for no clear expressive purpose that I could discern.

With regard to the orchestral score, I think this was one of several aspects of Written on Skin that reveals a certain lack of clear thinking on the part, despite their evident professionalism and sophistication, of composer and librettist. In discussing a work that is supposed to be set 800 years ago, a time when books were ‘written on skin’ (and the production’s way of representing illuminated pages with illuminated boxes was an excellent touch), and when an artist, the Boy, who grows too close to his employer’s wife, ends up grislily murdered and dismembered, it may be picayune to complain that the small group of operatically unusual instruments brought in evidently to create the sense of such a distant past featured, not as might have been expected sackbuts or shawms or cornetti, but mandolins, viola da gamba, and glass harmonica, none of which existed until several centuries after the action of the story. And while calling the lord and master in the plot ‘The Protector’ instead of giving him a name, or at least settling for ‘The Husband,’ was a touch of pithy irony — the only things the character himself seeming concerned to protect being his reputation, power, and wealth — but it seemed out of place in a story from which irony is otherwise conspicuously absent.

Written on Skin, for better or worse, is a major feature on the international contemporary operatic scene. Opera Philadelphia deserves credit and gratitude for bringing it before us and bringing it in so artistically compelling a production. But how I wish Mr. Devan could be persuaded to present one of the relatively few modern operatic masterpieces, such as Vincent, by Bernard Rands! Ah, well, I am being unfair: we did get to see and hear and admire Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves a couple of years ago. But it’s a critic’s job, among other things, to be greedy. More like that, please.

Bernard Jacobson

For Rick Perdian’s alternative view click here.

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