'A 21st-century masterpiece': ROH revival of Benjamin's Written on Skin

George Benjamin smiling portrait credit Matthew Lloyd (WEB).jpg

Described as ‘one of the first masterpieces of the 21st century’ by The New York Times, Benjamin’s ground-breaking opera Written on Skin has taken the world by storm since its premiere in 2012. Its composer harnesses an array of diverse instruments – including glass harmonica, bass viol and steel drums – in a strikingly beautiful and rich score which responds to every nuance of Martin Crimp’s resonant, finely chiselled text. London’s Royal Opera House revived the work in January 2017 to great critical acclaim, with the composer conducting a superb cast including Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves, Iestyn Davies, Mark Padmore and Victoria Simmonds.

 

 

 

PRESS

‘This revival confirms the greatness of a riveting modern work… I’m still riveted after seeing it three times. Benjamin’s score constantly discloses more and more marvels. Here I was mesmerised even more by the impression of ancestral voices (viol, glass harmonica) exhumed in a 21st-century soundworld: a musical approach which mirrors the story. And also struck by the sheer originality of the textures Benjamin creates with such economical means (every word uttered by the singers came across). Time and again, I found myself thinking: how the blazes did he do that? Truly a 21st-century masterpiece.’

The Times (Richard Morrison), 16 January 2017

 

‘This is the third time I have heard a live performance of Written on Skin, and I remain convinced that it will come to rank as one of the operatic masterpieces of our time – a hauntingly resonant and subtle drama, conveyed through music of profound expressive force and authentic originality that makes so much else that passes for genius in contemporary theatre seem tritely modish… This is musical history in the making, and the remaining performances should not be missed by anyone with open ears and mind… Benjamin’s music is both eerily precise, every batsqueak seeming to register through its translucent instrumentation, and weirdly elusive in its quietness and restraint. There is no mush, no babble, and the few climaxes are all the more shocking for being so spare. Like Debussy, whose Pelléas et Mélisande is evoked here at several levels, Benjamin can make the tiniest gesture or shading register with needle-sharpness – he doesn’t need to boom.

Only very occasional reference to the archaic sound-world of medieval music is made; the vocal lines are conversational but always lyrically shaped; and everything that happens in the orchestra pit is intimately related to the drama that unfolds. The sheer technical skill informing this is breathtaking… the audience was palpably enthralled throughout, transported by operatic art of the highest degree. Benjamin and Crimp’s next collaboration, scheduled to emerge next year, is impatiently anticipated.

The Telegraph (Rupert Christiansen), 14 January 2017

 

Written on Skin was widely acclaimed when it received its initial performances... Now revived at Covent Garden, again under the composer’s accomplished baton, its status as a contemporary operatic masterpiece is assured. Crimp ingeniously places this story in a contemporary framework, with a Chorus of Angels who mediate between past and present. Katie Mitchell’s production, with sets by Vicki Mortimer, points up that polarity… Mitchell’s fluid, economical staging unerringly captures the other-worldly, indeed transcendental nature of the work, inherent in text and music alike. Both, in different ways, distance themselves from mundane reality: Crimp’s text by having the characters narrate their own story, Benjamin’s score by avoiding the illustrative in favour of the allusive. Deploying an imaginatively wide-ranging palette (including bass viol, glass harmonica, sleigh-bells and bowed cow-bells), Benjamin can suggest the Protector’s burgeoning jealousy with low, minatory brass or tremolo strings; the score is replete too with preternaturally beautiful sonorities.'

The Evening Standard (Barry Millington), 16 January 2017

 

Written on Skin made a strong impression when it initially came to Covent Garden; in its first revival, it impresses even more… A subtle and fascinating score…whose overall delicacy and restraint alternating with sheer dramatic punch surely mark it out as a modern masterpiece.’        

The Stage (George Hall), 14 January 2017

 

‘This revival is an excuse to be dazzled once more by Benjamin's pellucid score; but also, now that Written on Skin is on its way to becoming a repertory piece, to wonder why it works… It works because the music, a 90-minute coiled spring, seduces and grips, and also because Crimp's libretto tells a vibrant tale by means of graceful epigrams and textual elegance.’

What’s on Stage (Mark Valencia), 14 January 2017

 

‘There’s a passage in Crimp’s impeccable libretto for Written on Skin that describes a page of illuminated manuscript. The ink, he tells us, stays forever wet – alive with moist, fleshy, indecent human reality rather than dried into decorous fixity. As a metaphor for storytelling, it’s potent; as a description of Benjamin’s score, it’s close to literal. Nearly five years after its Aix premiere, the music still shifts and shudders with awkward emotional truths, buckling with characters who refuse to be pinned in place, hunching with musical tension that refuses to release. It’s a singular score, as well as a singularly beautiful one, and this latest revival only confirms its power.

Jon Clark’s painterly lighting makes the space glow like a Dutch still-life, bringing depth and warmth to the earthy browns, pinks and creams, even as Benjamin’s score darkens its vision with violas and low brass…  As an industry we’re so in thrall to the premiere, to the thrill of the new, that we seem to have forgotten the value and the pleasure of the second encounter and the third. Benjamin’s opera grows with each…’

The Artsdesk (Alexandra Coghlan), 14 January 2017

 

‘Benjamin creates a dazzling clash of the medieval and modern… Rarely has a new opera been so universally welcomed ... Acclaimed as a masterpiece both here and in Europe, its being revived at the Royal Opera House only three years after its premiere… Crimp’s seeming artifice in having the protagonists narrate themselves ends by achieving more resonance and intensity than any mere appeal to emotions could manage.’

The Independent (Cara Chanteau), 15 January 2017