Written on Skin; music by George Benjamin, text by Martin Crimp, was first seen at the Aix en Provence festival in 2012. The following yewar it was given, in the same production by Katie Mitchell and with substantially the same cast, at Covent Garden. Both versions were televised and now the ROH version has been released on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s an unusual, complex and rewarding work. 21st century angels decide, for reasons not entirely clear, to return to the 13th century to create and participate in a human drama. The medieval humans are The Protector; a rich man of mature years utterly confident of his privileged position and his own righteousness, and his wife Agnès; younger, illiterate, downtrodden. Into their world comes The Boy; one of the angels in fact, who will create for The Protector an illuminated book; a precious object celebrating his wealth and worthiness. Inevitably, The Boy and Agnès fall in love and The Protector’s revenge, whipped up by the angels, is quite revoltingly violent. It’s essentially a simple and classic plot but Crimp shapes it skilfully with carefully placed anachronisms and by using the device of having the characters, sometimes, narrate their own actions in the third person. Benjamin’s score is in a modern idiom. He’s not afraid of atonality and he uses a very wide range of colours to create a score that ranges from meditational to almost unbearably violent. Certainly words and music work together here to great effect.
It almost needs a diagram to explain the production. It’s a two level set with a sort of workroom for the angels to one side of the stage and a larger area representing the human world next to it. Above this is more, rather sparsely used, angel space. The two levels are connected by a staircase at one side of the stage but it’s invisible most of the time and only comes into it’s own at the very end. The angels move props from their workroom into the human space as needed and two of them also double up as Agnès’ sister and BIL or as domestics as needed. It’s simple but effective and also quite hard to film!
It’s really unfair to single out individual performances from an excellent ensemble cast, all of them make a strong case for a far from easy score and all of them give committed, very physical, acting performances. The central trio are sung by Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, American countertenor Bejun Mehta and British baritone Chris Purves. They are well backed up by mezzo Victoria Simmonds as Marie/Angel 2 and Allan Clayton as John/Angel 3. The “chorus” of angels is made up of David Alexander, Laura Harling, Peter Hobday and Sarah Northgraves. The composer conducts and is clearly not afraid to push the sonic and emotional extremes of the music.
I had the DVD rather than the Blu-ray for review. It’s technically fine with clear DTS sound and a very good picture. Unusually for a live performance it’s shot in the Cinemascope aspect ration of 1:2.35. Margaret Williams, the video director, mostly gives us one room at a time. It’s hard to tell from the DVD but I suspect much of the time only one was lit for the stage production. She also uses some unusual camera angles, almost overhead at times, quite effectively. Overall her approach works pretty well. There’s some decent interview footage with pretty much everyone involves offered as an extra. The booklet contains a rather good essay by Christopher Wintle as well as a synopsis. Subtitle options are English, French, German and Japanese.
One feels that this is a piece that’s as likely as any contemporary opera to make it into the standard repertory and is well worth a look. Toronto folk should be aware that the TSO is giving Written on Skin in concert on March 7th as part of the New Creations Festival. Iestyn Davies will sing Angel 1 and both Hannigan and Purves will sing. The composer conducts.