I just watched Written on Skin via youtube. I won’t include the url, as this likely will only lead to its being taken down due to the traffic. Anyone serious about seeing it, can go to youtube and search for “Benjamin Written on Skin”. It’s an hour and 42 minutes, with over five minutes of applause at the end. That doesn’t sound long, but I don’t think I will watch it again.
Look at the title of the work AND my headline, then imagine that i mean my own skin, and ask yourself if that sounds like something pleasant (at first glance i thought the tale might refer to tattoos, but no…). Perhaps the creators would laugh at me and say that’s precisely what they sought to achieve. Maybe.
There is much to admire, much that is clever and new, yet I am perturbed by what’s familiar.
Chief among these is something a family member regularly lambasts me with, the fact that opera is a collection of horrible tales. Must it continue? I have trouble watching Carmen because I feel it’s a story of such misogyny that we’re watching a powerful woman getting put down –the way a mad dog is put down– for the sin of being too strong for the man she was with. It makes me furious just to think of it, so I avoid this opera like the plague that it records, a plague that’s with us still. Sure, it’s as universal as stalkers and rape. Do I need this in my life? Not if I can help it. I find myself embarrassed by and for my gender watching this opera, needing to explain that some men aren’t like Jose. Yet some, clearly ARE, G*dd*mm*t.
Written on Skin boasts a libretto from Martin Crimp, a playwright whom I admire a great deal. The score composed by George Benjamin is subtle, full of original touches, and still echoing in my head. But the opera makes Carmen look like Hansel und Gretel. Ha, as I look for an analogy (Magic Flute and Rigoletto popped into my head), everything is nasty, even the kids’ opera by Humperdinck. No I’m not going soft, quite the contrary. I am thinking about opera composition, and what I’d undertake to write if I had the cojones. Yet must one show one’s cojones in violating everyone?
I feel violated, I guess. The story is opera’s bread and butter, a love triangle, just like Tristan or Pelléas. Or Otello. Or Il tabarro. Hmm, brutal as Puccini’s entry into the infidelity sweepstakes may be, at least the wife is still alive at the end, which is more than you can say for any of the others.
When is someone going to write an opera that’s relevant to our own morality? Bill Clinton or Tiger Woods or –probably– the guy who lives right next door to you all screwed around, and nobody has to die, because it’s actually very funny. Just ask Pagliaccio (whoops… bad example i suspect). No I shouldn’t issue the blanket condemnation. There are lots of operas that I embrace, including some I complain about above. Neither Tristan nor Pelléas is misogynistic.
In any case, you can find it for yourself if you like. The singing is really good. Barbara Hannigan is quite a bold performer, likely undertaking this because of the bravery of her character Agnès, in standing up to her tyrannical husband. She reminds me of a line from ee cummings “I sing of Olaf”, namely “there is some shit I will not eat.” Near the end of the opera, she’s being forced to consume the heart of her dead lover (she didn’t know what was on her plate), and boldly….. kills herself?
Sorry that’s not much of a rebellion in my books, even if the music and the slow-motion enactment try to lend some dignity to the proceedings. No Pollyanna doesn’t normally lambast something this way, but then again, I also don’t want to send people innocently to see something that is –in my books—so horrific. Musically? Wonderful. Dramaturgically?wonderful. But politically? Inexcusable.
So let me concentrate on what I like.
The stage contains modern and medieval spaces, people in modern dress in two quadrants, while people in antique garb occupy other parts of the stage picture. It’s jarring, and surprisingly effective, something I’ve never seen. This is from the Aix-en-Provence, Grand Théâtre de Provence performance on youtube from July 2012. We see figures from our own time cheek-by-jowl with those from the middle ages, and in the process it powerfully authorizes what we’re seeing. The frameworks are metatheatre, matching the text itself, which is a story about making a book and making stories. The characters sometimes speak in the third person, as though exploring the new notion of identity; I read somewhere that in the middle ages our modern notion of individuality didn’t exist, or wasn’t intelligible, so I am hoping that’s why we have the third person narration.
The boy is creating an illuminated book, yet in opening up Agnès to the life of the flesh that had previously been missing from her existence, he also writes on skin. When the Protector –as Agnès’s tyrannical husband is called—kills the boy it’s with a knife, another –nasty—sense of the title. In a time when we seem to be witnessing the end of books and coincidentally, a month when I wrote about the magic of illuminated texts at the AGO, the title has a powerful set of implications. I was so sad to see where the story went, even as I recognize that the opera works like clockwork, the music powerfully enacting and signifiying the characters.
Christopher Purves is powerful, as you’d expect, in the role of the Protector, enacting and abusing his power. This is the sort of thing you’d hear sung in a baritone voice –like Prospero in the Tempest come to think of it—rather than a tenor or bass. Purves manages to be very likeable, perhaps a tribute to the writing, but also surely due to his performance, the depths he manages to convey in the harsh glare of high-def close-up.
Barbara Hannigan is as always, unstoppable, wonderfully subtle for the first part of the work, understated and self-effacing, as she gradually discovers herself. As a portrayal showing a change in a character, this is a wonderfully impressive piece of work. I have to remind myself that this is an opera watching her, and get over my horror at what happens.
Bejun Mehta is the boy, a counter-tenor whose mysterious presence animates and electrifies the world of the Protector & his wife Agnès. He is the artist –writing and drawing—and as such must perhaps be expected to suffer. Oh dear, another cliché…? But again, Mehta is wonderful, every note beautiful and every moment hypnotic. I hope to see him again.
Benjamin’s score is really good. The only really massively loud parts come when the action calls for it. Most of the time we hear the singers easily enough, although one of the singers I didn’t name was all but unintelligible (that is although sung in English, I needed the French subtitles to understand what this person was singing…everytime they appeared).
I wonder if I’d be happier with this viewed from a distance? In close-up, where I can be seduced by the faces of the cast, it’s very hard to endure such extreme violence enacted. Perhaps from a distance, bathed in Benjamin’s music, it might move me differently.
You’ve been warned.