“Extraordinary” is the promise on Royal Opera’s marketing and George Benjamin’s new opera takes us into a world that is out of the ordinary. Based on a thirteenth century tale told by the troubadours, Martin Crimp’s text takes us to extremes of human experience including lust, blood lust and cannibalism.
Written on Skin creates its own world by a distinctive grammar for the text and - in Katie Mitchell’s detailed production - by moving between modern time and medieval time. The lighting snaps between conditions to assist the transition. Costume changes take place on stage: it’s a two-level staging with a number of windows, a “quad split”. The action takes place in a highlighted window and there’s stage slow motion in the windows that are currently “background”.
The combined effect is to draw the audience in to the mind world of the opera. George Benjamin’s music is relatively accessible but it still needs a concentrated effort but the rewards are definitely there if approached with an open mind. Like Wagner, the singing is mostly solo, which highlights the effects of the duets, trios and quartets when they come along.
It seems that Written on Skin wrings us through the whole gamut of emotions and that’s what makes it an extraordinary experience. It does feel a bit akin to concentrated study of a book of the most searing war photographs of the last fifty years but the genius of the piece is that the images conjured up are modern but the tale is ancient. Humanity has not stopped committing atrocities.
The opera was well-attended though the house was not full, and the audience not quite the usual sort. A lot of the hard core and clearly veteran opera goers plus a large sprinkling of much younger audience. The readily identifiable corporate hospitality parties were conspicuous by their absence, a pity because had they been there, the messages coming from the ancient tale exploitation and brutality might have resonated with modern enterprise equivalents.
This evening’s performance was being recorded for television and radio so everything was just so. The composer conducted so the interpretation is authentic; likewise, the writer Martin Crimp came on stage in response to the enthusiastic reception. The dancer wearing the large angel tattoo on his back (as seen in the posters for the production) was strangely shy during the calls.
I came away both shell-shocked but also thinking it had been a rare treat, a visit to the world of a new opera as is breaking on the world. It’s a while since I have entrusted my cash to a UK premiere production - Michel Tippett operas “The Ice Break” and “New Year” were among the more memorable but they are rarities now. “Written on Skin” has made a more immediate impression: time will tell.
Director Katie Mitchell
Composer George Benjamin
Text Martin Crimp
Designs Vicki Mortimer
Lighting design Jon Clark
Conductor George Benjamin
Agnès Barbara Hannigan
Protector Christopher Purves
First Angel/Boy Bejun Mehta
Second Angel/Marie Victoria Simmonds
Third Angel/John Allan Clayton
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House