When George Benjamin
, the composer of the opera Written on Skin
, was a teenager he traveled to Paris to study with Olivier Messiaen
. The great composer/organist was very much impressed with his young pupil, even comparing him to Mozart
. It is totally apt, therefore, that the American premiere of Benjamin's tour-de-force opera occurred last night in New York during the yearly summer homage to the boy genius from Salzburg.
The libretto of Written on Skin, by playwright Martin Crimp
, takes us back to medieval days to recount an episode in the life of the legendary Catalan troubadour Guillem de Cabestaing
. As the story goes, he falls in love with his patron's wife, and when the husband finds out about their infidelity, he kills the troubadour, rips out his heart and cooks it. That evening at dinner the husband forces his wife to eat her lover's remains. After she realizes what she has done (and wanting to preserve the taste of her beloved on her lips forever) she commits suicide by throwing herself from a balcony. In the opera the troubadour is turned into an itinerant artist whose specialty is illuminated manuscripts.
Weaving in and out of the medieval story, characters in modern dress called angels reenact the story, entering into the medieval part of the set from their fluorescence lit contemporary space which resembles a laboratory, a place where perhaps illuminated manuscript might be in the process of being restored.
Both the libretto and the music travel back and forth in time and space. Mr. Benjamin's score freely mixes twentieth century thunderous dissonance with elements of contemporary tonality. His use of instruments such as a glass harmonica (a Benjamin Franklin
invention favored by both Mozart and Gaetano Donizetti
) as well as claves, pebbles, sleigh bells, and sandpaper offer a history of what is accepted as musical. The sounds coming out of that pit last night were exciting and mysterious. The audience is kept guessing as to the nature of those cryptic sounds. At the same time, the music is dictated by the dramatic events onstage. It never feels like the musical inventions are overwhelming the drama. Meanwhile, the libretto offers lines like “Strip the cities of brick . . .
strip out the wires and cover the land
with grass” which transcends the notion of time and space.
Most of the principal singers, as well as the musicians (The Mahler Chamber Orchestra
) performed this work at its world premiere at the Aix-en-Provence Festiva
l in 2012. The new kids on the block were countertenor Tim Mead
, and conductor Alan Gilbert
. Reprising the roles they created were baritone Christopher Purves
and soprano Barbara Hannigan
. All of them deserve much praise for their incredible work.
Written on Skin is a landmark work. I have no doubt that its score will be on the reading, and future performing lists of many conservatories. I am also sure that audience raconteurs will delight (or bore) later generations with tall tales about how they were present at the premiere. Consider yourself lucky if you were able to snatch up a ticket to the three performances being presented in this year's Mostly Mozart Festival.