tue 23/07/2024

Written on Skin, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Written on Skin, Barbican

Written on Skin, Barbican

An operatic story still etched as deeply as ever

George Benjamin at workMatthew Lloyd

You learn a lot about an opera in concert. Free from directorial and design intervention, the music can and must do it all. What is good is amplified, and what’s weak exposed. When that score is as psychologically rich and texturally varied as George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, the clarity of a concert performance can actually feel like a gain rather than a loss.

Which isn’t to belittle either Katie Mitchell’s original staging for the Aix Festival, or the work at the Barbican last night of director Benjamin Davis, who creates an allusive semi-staging within the significant restrictions of the Barbican Hall. But Benjamin’s score is so self-sufficient that it needs no help to etch its story deep into its audience.

It's Purves you can’t take your eyes off. The subtle rhetoric of his delivery is a marvel

The story has the same fable-like simplicity that gives Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill its elegant architecture. A love triangle sets a woman between two men – her husband, The Protector, and The Boy, an artist invited into their home. Control and authority clash with passion and anarchic freedom, and the results are brutal. A trio of angels (Victoria Simmonds, the excellent Robert Murray, and Tim Mead) watch the action play out with dispassionate interest.

Benjamin’s large orchestra dwarfs his cast of just five, but it’s a balance that reflects the dramatic responsibility of the instrumental music – poured into the spaces between Martin Crimp’s pared-back poetry. So when The Protector wheedles and needles The Boy into making him a book it’s the cellos that whine; when Benjamin reaches for an equal and opposite sound to the reedy purity of a countertenor he produces a bass viol; when he looks for a sonority to denature the romance of the harp he finds a guitar, and when Agnès finds herself driven to the brink of madness by her husband’s scheming it’s a glass harmonica, with its eerie echoes of Lucia, that flutters like the pulse at her temple.

Benjamin shifts the orchestra’s centre of gravity, setting it unusually low. The music is heavy with violas, and added to the prominence of low woodwind and brass this anchors even the flightiest shrieks of high strings and flutes, giving an apparently slight tale roots that go deep. This textural stability allows the composer to play more freely, shifting between the harmonic certainty of The Protector's early phrases and the ambiguity of The Boy’s, with their fluid relationship to harmony and tonality.

Benjamin himself (pictured below, at a Madrid performance ©Javier del Real, Teatro Real) conducted the Mahler Chamber Orchestra at the work’s 2012 premiere, and they return here alongside original cast members Barbara Hannigan and Christopher Purves (pictured above right). With an extended international tour of the opera already many months underway, last night’s performance was built on deep foundations. This is music that has been lived in, and it shows in the emotional and musical risks taken.

The central trio of Purves, Hannigan and Tim Mead as The Boy are all but unimprovable. Mead makes a chilly seducer, magnetic but horribly impassive. It’s a physical performance that’s the twin of his vocal delivery, which brings both Brittenish purity and Baroque power to bear on music that’s tainted even as it is exquisite. His duets with Hannigan are indecently sensual, sparking harmonics that ripple back through the orchestra. Hannigan herself is the perfect woman-child, by turns obstinate and ecstatic, bringing a muscularity to Benjamin’s high-lying writing that refuses to melt into bland beauty.

But it is Purves you can’t take your eyes off. The subtle rhetoric of his delivery is a marvel. The notes are just the start of expressive details and shading that render this tyrant disquietingly human. It is he who leads the orchestra into its sudden, cataclysmic flares of sound – moments where Benjamin treats his whole ensemble as a percussion section, striking and shaking them – and matches them in the heft of his anger, his violence.

Benjamin has always been a miniaturist by instinct, working in detail but not necessarily in scope. In Written on Skin he retains all his concision, his immaculate restraint, but adds an emotional thrust that, even four years on from the premiere, still startles. He and Crimp return with a brand-new work for the Royal Opera House in 2018, and it’s hard not to be very excited about what that might bring.

Mead's performance brings both Brittenish purity and Baroque power to bear on music that’s tainted even as it is exquisite


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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