George Benjamin’s Written on Skin is ably revived and given a commanding performance in Berlin

GermanyGermany Benjamin, Written on Skin: Soloists, Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper / Marc Albrecht (conductor). Deutsche Oper, Berlin, 1.2.2024. (MB)

Katie Mitchell’s production of Written on Skin for Deutsche Oper Berlin © Bernd Uhlig

Director – Katie Mitchell
Revival director – Dan Ayling
Designs – Vicki Mortimer
Lighting – Jon Clark
Dramaturgy – Sebastian Hanusa

Protector – Mark Stone
Agnès – Georgia Jarman
First Angel / The Boy – Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen
Second Angel / Marie – Anna Werle
Third Angel, / John – Chance Jonas-O’Toole
Angel archivists – Leander Gaul, Yasmina Giebeler, Milli Keil, Maximilian Reisinger

More than a decade has passed since I first saw George Benjamin’s second opera, Written on Skin, at Covent Garden. The premiere, both of the work and Katie Mitchell’s well-travelled production, took place at Aix in 2012. Now it reaches, for the first time, Berlin in a further revival of Mitchell’s staging for the Deutsche Oper. It is my fourth hearing, since I attended both the Royal Opera’s 2017 revival and, the year before, a concert performance at the Barbican with Aix’s original Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Greater acquaintance leaves my admiration undimmed; if anything, it glows all the brighter. For whilst the casts of my previous encounters had much, though not everything, in common, and Benjamin conducted them all, here we have something new in all but the staging, ably revived by Dan Ayling.

I shall not attempt a broad overview, whether musical or dramatic, of the work, as I did in 2013. (My review can be read here, for those interested.) Rather, I shall point to some aspects of work, production, and performance that struck me on this occasion. First, I cannot now understand my lukewarmness concerning Mitchell’s staging. Maybe I have grown more accustomed not only to her work but to contemporary theatre more generally. If anything, the danger for me is perhaps the opposite, that I now associate the work with this particular production. There have, astonishingly for a new work, especially a new work that is not, shall we say, of the US ‘easy listening variety’, been numerous productions already; for now, though, this is the only one I have seen. Vicki Mortimer’s split-level set enables us to see the world of angels and that of men (specifically, the Protector, Agnès, her sister and brother-in-law, and The Boy) and, crucially, their transformative interaction, as, for, instance one of the angels is apprised of the situation – narratives already building upon one another – and assumes, as it were, the role of the Boy who will chronicle his patron’s life in words and images. That includes the liberating sexual relationship that arises between him and the brutalised Agnès, the Protector’s ‘property’, truly coming to life in an authentically musicodramatic marriage of words, music, and staging. Indeed, the eroticism here of Benjamin’s score struck me more strongly than ever before, perhaps a hallmark of conductor Marc Albrecht’s approach to the work.

So does what might seem a commonplace of drama, yet here seems particular, unique, partly because one is led to feel, not only observe, it in its very particular character: inexorability of fate. As tightly organised a score as The Turn of the Screw, yet less obviously so, holds us captive, almost like Agnès herself. It beguiles, perhaps even breaths a little of the Occitan air, medieval and now, but never via an attempt to reproduce or even to represent. Illumination, in whatever sense we care, is both more complex and more immediate than that.  There is certainly commentary; it is inscribed, as it were, upon the very skin of the work. Yet however much the angels might classify, file away, their real work is in transformation: of persons and perhaps ultimately of souls.

Senses of time passing, of claustrophobia, of fate closing in – though never merely mirroring – the work – and indeed of an uncontrollable, dangerous joy that must be controlled, yet in that act of controlling requires new life are conveyed scenically in new layers of an activity that conspires both to be particular and quotidian. It is almost a religious ritual, bringing further to life a quasi-Passion of passion to join works such as Così fan tutte and Tristan und Isolde, as well as the more obviously (and musically) related Pelléas et Mélisande. In work and performance, this intriguing, almost mythical combination of straightforward action and elusive allusion that may or may not be symbolism suggests a temporal palimpsest. (Not for nothing, perhaps, is one of Benjamin’s major orchestral works, actually titled Palimpsests, an exploration of that idea.)

By the same token, though, there is no doubting the rawness and immediacy of acts, of things also being very much what they seem. In Agnès’s words not only of liberation, but also of the Boy’s instruction: ‘Love’s not a picture; love is an act.’ This and so many other moments confirmed and furthered my admiration for Martin Crimp’s libretto. Unlike so many attempts at writing for opera, Crimp’s work for Benjamin here and elsewhere permits plenty of space for music. Indeed, if one did not know, one might struggle to guess which came first; it would be fascinating to read any correspondence they may have had about this.

Georgia Jarman as Agnès in Katie Mitchell’s production of Written on Skin for Deutsche Oper Berlin © Bernd Uhlig

Performance is itself a necessary act. We are not here speaking merely of something written or drawn on the page. Albrecht and the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper gave a commanding performance, with all the freshness of discovery yet also an understanding and conviction that might have been born of repertoire status. (It is, arguably, a repertoire opera now, yet not yet in this house, for this was only its second performance.) Georgia Jarman made the role of Agnès very much her own, fully inhabiting a character come to life through the alchemy of music as well as words and staging. One felt her predicament strongly, shared her struggle and ultimate revenge, without the drama being reduced merely to them. Mark Stone’s Protector was cruel and, in his own way, righteous, torn himself between two loves, the question of his feelings for The Boy opened up rather than ‘dealt with’. Pride and vulnerability were both present. Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen’s performance as The Boy might almost have stolen the show in its uncannily angelic combination of the worldly and otherworldly; that is, it might have done, had the cast not worked so closely together. Anna Werle and Chance Jonas-O’Toole, doubling as Angels and, respectively, Marie and John offered equally fine performances in smaller roles. For in richness of layering and sureness of fatal direction, this was a performance as well as a work created and recreated through its writing on skin.

Mark Berry

Leave a Comment