'As soon as it had finished, I wanted to hear it again' - George Benjamin's 'Written on Skin'

'As soon as it had finished, I wanted to hear it again' - George Benjamin's 'Written on Skin'
The British press has today joined the international community in welcoming George Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin as a ‘masterpiece’ and one that will be here to stay (see below).  We are delighted that The Royal Opera House has already announced a revival for January 2017.


PRESS COMMENTS
 
‘a triumphant work that carves out a unique place in modern opera’
 
*****
‘…this is a triumphant work that carves out a unique place in modern opera… Anyone worried about the future of opera should take heart from George Benjamin’s opera... Written on Skin has two priceless components – a powerful allegorical tale, both medieval and up-to-the-minute, couched in librettist Martin Crimp’s terse, poetic prose, and a score that is ultra-sophisticated, subtle and often extremely sensuous, but also capable of the bestial and guttural. This is an opera that recognisably extends the tradition of Wozzeck and Pelléas in its exploration of the human condition, while carving out a unique place in modern opera. That’s because Benjamin avoids what he calls the “zigzagging” clichés of contemporary vocal writing and instead writes music that expresses emotion.’
Financial Times (Andrew Clark), 11 March 2013
 
‘As soon as it had finished, I wanted to hear it again… a musical masterpiece.’
 
*****
‘George Benjamin seems to have come to opera with his genius fully formed. Written on Skin is not his first music-theatre work – that was Into the Little Hill, a chamber piece from 2006 – but it is his debut full-scale opera, the fruit of an ambition stretching back more than 20 years, and as such it is nothing short of a triumph. As soon as it had finished, I wanted to hear it again… it is the music that makes the piece. The score, which Benjamin conducts himself, calls for a large orchestra, yet we get only fleeting glimpses of its full power. Instead Benjamin weaves narrow lines around his singers, cradling each word, revelling in evocative sonorities. The weirdest and most wonderful comes in the seduction scene: a bass viol and a glass harmonica intertwine in a gently rasping glow, sparse yet achingly sensual, and the air crackles with tension… a musical masterpiece.’
The Guardian (Erica Jeal), 10 March 2013
 
‘…what joy to encounter something as enthralling and enchanting as this.’
 
*****
‘…here is a new opera that is palpably a serious and important work of art, both exquisitely crafted and deeply resonant… Benjamin’s score is intricately woven into the text and story, as though illuminating a manuscript itself. In its dreamy yet crystalline beauty, it shows the lineaments of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, with richly expressive vocal lines and delicately lucid instrumental colouring (including bells, viols and glass harmonica) which evokes another world without resorting to cliché or pastiche. And for all the slowness of outward pace, the dramatic tension never slackens and the brutal climaxes are stupendous. This is music of genius… what joy to encounter something as enthralling and enchanting as this.’
The Telegraph (Rupert Christiansen), 10 March 2013
 
'...the opera travels vast philosophical and psychological terrain in just a hundred minutes.'
 
****
‘There isn’t a much higher compliment you can pay a new work than wanting to hear it again the moment it has finished… Predicting the future is a tricky business but this music drama is surely here to stay. This is almost as much because of Martin Crimp’s salty libretto as it is Benjamin’s ingenious score, which the composer also conducts… the opera travels vast philosophical and psychological terrain in just a hundred minutes… it’s the tension between creators and characters, art and reality, and the ideal and the physical, that gives Written on Skin its sting… The composer’s response to this tension is deft and acute. There are antique nods to the medieval setting, in jangling cowbells and eerie mandolins. Occasionally you hear echoes of Wagnerian eroticism, while the refreshingly clean vocal writing recalls Janácek or Berg. But Benjamin’s greatest success is to use the orchestra both to mine all the sweaty detail from the narrative and to capture its wider, stranger dramatic resonance… when today’s composers so often struggle to translate their musical language into convincing theatre, Written on Skin stands out as a notable triumph.’
The Times (Neil Fisher), 10 March 2013
 
‘After seeing Written on Skin, I have some idea what it must have been like to have been at the premiere of Peter Grimes
 
*****
‘After seeing Written on Skin, I have some idea what it must have been like to have been at the premiere of Peter Grimes. Just as Britten’s opera was immediately obvious as a masterpiece – and not just of British opera – so, too, Benjamin’s work is a league above any other new opera I have seen. From its first note to its last, through 90 riveting minutes, Written on Skin shows that reports of opera’s demise are nonsense. In the right hands, it can still be the most gripping of all performance media... Drop everything. Go.’
The Jewish Chronicle (Stephen Pollard), 15 March 2013

‘…a riveting evening'
 
****
‘…a riveting evening… every page of Benjamin’s music is shot through with echoes of Debussy’s opera [Pelléas et Mélisande,], while his sound-world – including viola da gamba and glass harmonica - has the same exquisite purity; Crimp’s libretto enhances this effect through its inventive stylisation.’
The Independent (Michael Church), 11 March 2013
 
‘fusing the legacy of twentieth-century modernism with glimpses of a twenty-first-century tonality’
 
‘…more than a few pages of Written on Skin are as immaculate as anything that Benjamin has written, or, for that matter, anything composed since the heyday of Ravel. The score is magnificently free of clichés and longueurs. Orchestration teachers will add it to the curriculum, and students will marvel at the mind that could blend oboes, muted trumpets, pizzicato strings, and bongos into one scuttling, insectoid instrument. Yet the opera smolders with darker, wilder energies. Benjamin has found a way of painting on a large canvas, indulging in grand gestures while maintaining his fabled control of detail. He has also pulled off a tremendous feat of stylistic integration, fusing the legacy of twentieth-century modernism with glimpses of a twenty-first-century tonality. Even the composer’s most committed admirers are a little shocked: Written on Skin feels like the work of a genius unleashed…
The New Yorker (Alex Ross), 25 March 2013
 
‘a work of compelling fascination’
 
Written on Skin is a work of compelling fascination, all the more so in that it is elusive and possibly wilfully puzzling. I want to see it again as soon as possible, and of how many new operas can that be said? …What makes the experience of Skin so… involving and thrilling… is the quality of the music. For anyone who doesn’t know Benjamin’s music, I can only say that it is unlike anyone else’s, but that his admiration for Debussy’s Pelléas and Berg’s Wozzeck is clear, to Pelléas in the conversational intimacy of most of the singing, to Berg in the rare but immense and disturbing eruptions, when the world seems blown apart… Anyone with the least interest in contemporary opera… needs to see this while the chance is there.’
The Spectator (Michael Tanner), 16 March 2013
 
‘Not since Britten’s Death in Venice has a British opera proved such an immediate international hit’
 
‘…[Written on Skin] certainly lives up to the expectations aroused by the almost universal acclaim for the world-premiere production at last year’s Aix-en-Provence festival. German, French and British critics alike hailed the work as one of the most striking new European opera in decades… Not since Britten’s Death in Venice in the 1970s has a large-scale British opera proved such an immediate international hit… Benjamin’s music achieves its impact with discreet transparency of texture, yet can unleash the underlying violence of the Protector’s cruelty and arrogant dominion over his wife in passages of devastating directness and power… Written on Skin, authoritatively conducted by the composer, is a triumph for all concerned…’
The Sunday Times (Hugh Canning), 17 March 2013
 
‘...extraordinary energy and emotional directness...’
 
‘The drama combines highfalutin with high-octane, providing as much edge-of-the-seat excitement as food for leisurely contemplation. In Mr Crimp’s hands the story, taken from a gory medieval romance in which a cuckolded nobleman forces his wife to eat the heart of her murdered lover, becomes a troubling philosophical parable. Mr Benjamin’s delicately scored but uncompromisingly driven music provides extraordinary energy and emotional directness, yet also creates shimmering aural sculptures which challenge and delight the senses… Written on Skin has silenced such voices [declaring that opera houses should stick to the tried and tested repertoire] with unanimous praise from critics and audiences alike.’
The Economist (M.D.), 21 March 2013
 
'Written on Skin sinks deeply into the psyche…'
 
‘George Benjamin's Written on Skin sinks deeply into the psyche… Benjamin's music operates as poetry, elusively, obliquely, but with enough passion to make the drama progress… Although Benjamin's writing makes a virtue of ambiguity, his orchestration is stunningly pure and clear textured… This replicates the clean outlines of medieval illumination : no muddy shadows, but intense, unnatural colour… Individual words are gloriously embroidered and illuminated, so they shine out from the background of undulating rhythms… this will be one of the defining operas of the early 21st century, because it is so visionary.’
Opera Today (Anne Ozorio), 11 March 2013

‘…a triumph for composer, writer and director…'

‘…a triumph for composer, writer and director… Benjamin’s contribution is the most consistently impressive facet here… the expressive range as contained in Written on Skin is not only appreciably greater than hitherto but also wider than is likely to be found in almost all other operas (British or otherwise) of the past quarter-century. Although the forces used are decidedly those of an orchestra rather than an ensemble, the resourcefulness of its deployment as well as the fastidious manner in which its soundworld has been geared to the situation confirms a mastery of so much more than craft alone.’
Classical Source (Richard Whitehouse), 10 March 2013