tue 23/07/2024

Written on Skin, Royal Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Written on Skin, Royal Opera

Written on Skin, Royal Opera

New George Benjamin opera is skin-deep

Vicki Mortimer's sets complicate things in a good way

It’s hard to put one’s finger on why George Benjamin’s new opera doesn’t work. It comes to Covent Garden with a wind in its sails. Its outings in Europe have all received high praise. It boasts a classy cast, Martin Crimp as librettist and Benjamin at the helm of the orchestra. The story is a captivatingly horrific medieval morality tale that often goes by the title of "the Eaten Heart story". And there’s little wrong with Katie Mitchell’s production.

On one level Written on Skin explores a simple ménage a trois, in which a loveless couple allow a stranger – an illuminator of manuscripts – into their lives and have their lives turned upside down by him. On another it’s about the dangers of inviting an artist to hold up a mirror to your circumstances. Will you like what you see? There are echoes of things like Theorem by Pasolini and Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy, and, in Jon Clark's lighting, Tarkovsky and Caravaggio.

All three principal voices offer a beauty of tone that beguiles throughout

It is sophisticated in the way that it allows one’s sympathies shift. Christopher Purves is anyway too clever an actor to let the oppressive husband Protector to remain a basic villain and one quickly starts to empathise with him – in spite of his vileness – as one witnesses his wife, Agnes (Barbara Hannigan), lusting after the artist stranger (Bejun Mehta) and finally succumbing to him. 

Vicki Mortimer's sets complicate things in a good way. One half of the modernist doll’s house we look into - the half housing the couple – is quasi-medieval, the other – where intervening angels and their helpers work - 21st-century. Interesting questions arise from this juxtaposition, as it appears that fantasy is housed in the modern world and reality in the medieval.

And one can't fault the singing. All three principal voices offer a beauty of tone that beguiles. Purves and Hannigan, especially, use their timbral beauty to elucidate character in a masterclass of nuance and understanding. And both bring a bodily flexibility to this vocal plasticity that means that it is hard – even when other elements are conspiring against us – to gainsay what's going on on stage.

All that was needed to give life to this is a decent score. And while we got a clever score, one that attended to all the superficial needs of the libretto – sultry music here, loud and dramatic music there, pseudo-medieval touches there, all alluringly teased out by Benjamin on the Royal Opera House podium – we were short-changed on melody and emotion. You only have to read the interview with Benjamin in the programme notes to see why. 

Fear pervaded this first attempt at a full-scale opera from Benjamin. Fear of realism. Fear of the audience. Fear of quotation. Fear of modern opera's ability to sustain interest.

The result is music that feels hemmed in, that tiptoes around (almost literally in the extended pizzicatoing). It's careful, neat, safe, po-faced music (he's always stumped by Crimp's humour) that dutifully hangs on every word, confirming its dramatic or psychological meaning, but rarely if ever adding anything more to it. It’s a score low on inspiration and high on pedantry.

There are scenes that work well. The slow-motion chase - husband after wife - in the last few minutes, the spectral sound of a glass harmonica wafting up from the pit, makes for a terrific finale. But this is music that goes only skin-deep.

Follow @IgorToronyi on Twitter


I thought Wrtten on Skin really worked on a musical Level. Benjamin is meticulous in a good way , he brings the orchestra to climaxes without comprimising their power by removing singing from the equation. This is a succesful device used by Wagner. There are some equisite vocal lines and Benjamin has a superb grasp on composing drama through creating musical architecture.Thank goodness for a great opera at Covent Garden compared to recent flops such as Turnage's Anna Nichole.

Who says Anna Nicole was a flop? It captured a surprising new audience, was brilliantly done on every level - even those who don't like Turnage's music agreed on that - and pleased a high proportion of the serious-minded. I'd say it was up there among the top five really successful new operas of the last 20 years (though there's not much competition, admittedly). And it's coming back, hurrah.

Agreed. ANNA and WRITTEN were both superb. It's Adès TEMPEST that I don't get. That was truly horrible. However, that said I am sorta looking forward to his EXTERMINATING ANGEL in 2014.

Thankyou thankyou for daring to write such an honest and sensitive review. So many clever tricks, never once brought to life the deep heart felt possibilities in the story. It was flat and monotonous and I felt like I had been entertained by emotionless zombies moving in slow motion to a dulled score, rarely soaring nor taking full advantage of the pit of brilliant musicians. I am deeply disheartened if this is greatness.

I will, sadly, miss Written on Skin (might we hope for a DVD?), but I enjoyed Anna Nicole and, last year, The Lighthouse. So I applaud all attempts by our opera companies - ROH, ENO, WNO, ON, ETO &c &c - to commission new operas or revive recent compositions.

Yes, I understand a DVD is planned, though the Royal Opera might like to confirm this. There's already a (sound only) recording of the Aix production, I think.

Agree with every one of Igor's words about the score. I went last night and, though never distracted or bored, found Benjamin's orchestration admirable, but what did he have to say - and what was this chilly manipulator doing writing an opera about lust, murder and cannibalism? Why was there such a passion to see a passionless work (for all the fine singing)? Iactually dislike Crimp's often pretentious libretto, too, and have no idea what it has to say to us today (despite the overloaded images of destruction). So, in response to the first Anon, I don't get The Tempest and I don't get this either. Anna Nicole is a whole different, truly human ball game.

among the handful of more perceptive reviews about 'written on skin' the orchestration was alluring and was almost enough to hold my attention, but dramatically the whole thing seemed rather inert. A less than gripping evening. On an upbeat note about contemporary opera I'm eagerly anticipating 'The Importance of Being Earnest' which i enjoyed so much at the Barbican last year.

A day late and a dollar short to comment on this, as they say, but having just seen a dvd and wanting other opinions.... The theme of this opera is violence against women and I thought the entire project entirely too complicit, enthusiastic even, in its acceptance of this rather distasteful premise. The production, of course, displayed skill but, in my opinion, put it to the wrong use and therefore was unhelpful to the piece. Ms. Mitchell seemed only to want to comment on the piece rather than express it. It is a difficult piece to stage, with many traps that I feel were not avoided. Like every other interesting opera, the story is in the score and Mr Benjamin provided many clues that were not taken up that might have mitigated its essential premise.

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters