Written on Skin: Opera in Three Parts
Frequently bought together
Customers who bought this item also bought
The universally acclaimed opera Written On Skin is the second collaboration between George Benjamin and Martin Crimp after their similarly lauded one-act opera, Into the Little Hill. Written On Skin was jointly commissioned by the Festival d Aix-en-Provence, and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and this recording was taken from the premiere in July 2012 at Aix-en-Provence conducted by the
composer. George Benjamin s status as one of the UK s leading composers has created unprecedented demand for this new opera!
Written On Skin feels like the work of a genius unleashed. --Alex Ross, The New Yorker
A landmark in British opera ... It s not often that you feel you were present at a truly significant artistic event one that people will talk about for years to come, one that throws down a gauntlet to other artists, one that raises the bar. --The Guardian
Top customer reviews
The story is a classical one but as presented it's pretty edgy: sex, angels, adultery, murder, a little cannibalism. The vocal parts are sung dialog, performed dramatically and skillfully without bellowing or shrieking. No one sings an aria while everyone waits for them to finish: they speak/sing to each other or to the audience, their speech often overlapping, as in modern theater. Sometimes the characters refer to themselves in the third person as if they were narrators; it is an odd device but it works well.
There is a large orchestra but everyone doesn't blast away at once: changing groups of instruments produce fascinating unexpected textures that underscore the voices, enhance the drama, and provide interludes that create the appropriate mood. It's a pleasure to listen to.
Die-hard opera fans who just want to see Rigoletto again -- and again -- may not care for this, as it is a great departure from traditional Grand Opera. But I think Benjamin and other contemporary composers are taking opera in a new direction, and it sounds fine to me.
There is a short work for piano and orchestra on Disk 2. I find it exciting: surprising textures, strong rhythms, interesting conversation between the piano and the orchestra.
Here is an excerpt from a review I wrote earlier for another Website. I'm posting it here because "Written on Skin" deserves more careful, thorough consideration. "This is the finest English-language opera I have come across in years. . . . If you have an adventurous music-lover on your gift list, then this might be the ticket. Benjamin and his librettist, the talented poet Martin Crimp, have fashioned a compelling tale of art, adultery, and brutal vengeance based on a 13th-century Spanish chronicle.
The text reads like poetry—and Nimbus lays it out that way in their booklet—but it moves back and forth between that ancient story and the discontents and tragedies of the modern age. The composer’s musical language is modernist but tonal. I found it easy to slip into after about ten minutes, kind of like what you do at a Shakespeare play. At first the English seems stilted, but you adjust, and then you don’t really notice it. You’re borne along on the author’s genius for narrative and characterization. (And, in Benjamin’s case, his sensitivity to the human voice and his canny use of orchestral timbre and texture.)
The recording was made during Written on Skin’s premiere at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in July 2012. Sound-wise, it’s not absolutely top-notich, but it’s much more than adequate. The small cast are all first-rate, including formidable soprano Barbara Hannigan and the even more astonishing countertenor Bejun Mehta. A young multinational orchestra plays its heart out for the composer, who conducted.
There is also a DVD or Blu-ray now available of the Royal Opera House production of this opera, with the same principal singers.
"Written on Skin" was Benjamin's second opera after Into the Little Hill, and the composer again asked playwright Martin Crimp to write the libretto. This second collaboration continues the first opera's striking style of mixing very modern themes with a tale that seems old as the ages. The plot is relatively simple: somewhere in France and sometime in the Middle Ages, a landowning husband ("The Protector", bass-baritone, Christopher Purves) lords it over his serfs and his young wife ("The Woman", soprano, Barbara Hannigan). The Protector hires a young artist ("The Boy", countertenor, Bejun Mehta) to create what must have been the ultimate status symbol in this medieval society: an illuminated manuscript on vellum (something literally written on skin). The Woman, feeling neglected by her husband, seduces The Boy as he creates the manuscript. The Protector catches wind of this and kills The Boy, then serves his heart to The Woman. (This drama is vaguely inspired by the mythical life of Guillaume de Cabestany, a troubadour not a manuscript illuminator.)
A chorus of angels provides commentary, and the sister and husband-in-law of The Woman are the only prominent supporting characters. Granted with a perspective that transcends any one time, the chorus of angels refer to modern things like the Holocaust or the concreted lanes that will eventually cover up our medieval France setting in the same breath as the medieval barbarism on display in the opera's plot. The three main characters also sometimes speak of themselves in the third person, which makes them even more archetypes of something universal than their generic names already suggest.
George Benjamin's music continues to explore the same vaguely French impressionist vein as earlier works, with a love of low winds and strings. The music works more through atmosphere than distinct melody or leitmotifs. Audiences are unlikely to walk away humming anything from the opera, and if you don't already enjoy, for example, Berg's operas, then this will probably prove too modern for you. However, I think the music is a good accompaniment for the action onstage, as well as the characters' inner thoughts. Some of the sonorities in Benjamin's orchestration are striking, such as the mixture of a bass viol and brass in one scene (almost sounding like a big artificial sitar), and the glass harmonica played as the opera draws to a close.
While the music is enjoyable, I don't think that Benjamin's score is one of those few operas that can entirely satisfy in the complete absence of visuals. Plus, not only is the aforementioned video release of "Written on Skin" superior in just being able to see the action, the clever staging there creates an entire other layer around the plot: the medieval drama plays out in one of the several rooms visible on stage. The other rooms that connect to it are set up like a modern archive, staffed by people who seem to be preserving the sort of medieval manuscripts that The Boy would have created. The employees of this archive enter the medieval chateau room to become the chorus of angels, before withdrawing to the modern setting. We miss all that here.
As a Benjamin fan, however, I am still happy that I bought this CD release. Having seen the video release, I can now visualize the action and so when this audio-only recording comes up on my random playlist, it’s a highly enjoyable experience.
Plus, "Duet for Piano and Concertante" is an interesting work. Written in 2008, with a slight orchestration that completely eschews violins, this piece contrasts the differences between orchestral instruments and the solo piano by having them play similar material: a solo piano's sound dies almost immediately, while the orchestra treated broadly as a single super-instrument lets the sounds carry on legato. Again, Benjamin draws some unusual sounds from his forces, evoking a kalimba through the orchestra as a curious twin of the piano. Like the opera, this performance of "Duet" was recorded by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by Benjamin himself. The soloist is Pierre-Laurent Aimard, but while the presence of this virtuoso might lead you to expect a complex piano part, the music is surprisingly quite spare and simple.
Nimbus' booklet contains a brief statement by Martin Crimp on his inspiration, an interview with George Benjamin, the programme note for "Duet", and biographies of the singers and Aimard. No libretto for the opera (which is sung in English) is included, but Benjamin's setting of the text generally favours the ready intelligibility of the words and so the lack of a libretto isn't a big problem.