‘Written on Skin’ one year on – reviews from Vienna and Munich

‘Written on Skin’ one year on – reviews from Vienna and Munich
One year ago Written on Skin was heralded as a ‘masterpiece’, ‘a classic’, ‘a defining opera of the 21st Century’ – not easy titles to live up to, and ones that could easily fade after the initial excitement of the premiere, but if anything, this extraordinary opera has grown even more in stature. In just one year it has been performed 27 times to sell-out audiences across 6 different cities, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and on BBC 4 TV, and recorded for CD (the Nimbus disc has received much praise) and DVD (to be released in January 2014). Everywhere this opera is heard, it receives unanimous praise.
The most recent performances at Theater an der Wien, Vienna and Bayerischer Staatsoper, Munich (with Klangforum Wien and conductor Kent Nagano) were no exception.
‘Who says that contemporary opera is elitist, aloof, inaudible or even that it should sit in an intellectual ivory tower? None of this applies to Written on Skin… Benjamin’s music is phenomenal: Delicate, shimmering, sensual, coarse and brutal, tonal and atonal, passionate and sober - but always, always brilliant. Yes, you could also hear Berg, Debussy, Messiaen or Boulez. But Benjamin is Benjamin and as such is gigantic… Conductor Kent Nagano and the fantastic Klangforum Wien really explore all facets (of which there are many) of the score and spark an irresistible orchestral magnetism. It gets under your skin, from the first to the last note... Opera – it lives! And today!’
Kurier (Peter Jarolin), 15 June 2013
‘The splendidly eclectic George Benjamin provides expressive, rich and beautiful music that Klangforum Wien, under Kent Nagano, concentrates and sensually proliferates. The text is generally well understood. Terrific soprano Barbara Hannigan fought the freedom struggle of the oppressed Agnès, whilst counter-tenor Iestyn Davies was an ethereal sonorous illuminator…  Much cheering for a short 90 minutes.’
Die Presse (Walter Weidringer), 15 June 2013
‘Kent Nagano led the brilliant and expressive Klangforum Wien confidently through the subtly crafted score. George Benjamin, one of the most distinguished English composer of his generation, cultivates in his first full-length opera a polystilistic open musical language, which is characterized by highly sophisticated instrumentation, whose beguiling palatable and sensual sound carries the red-hot vocals.’
Kleine Zeitung (Ernst Naredi-Rainer), 15 June 2013
‘Almost too beautiful… Essentially Benjamin has made right what goes wrong in most of contemporary musical theatre. First, by putting on a story of easy-to-place nevertheless archaic force, which has similarities, one way or another, in much European literature… Another moment of ingenuity is the way Benjamin’s music moves so sophisticatedly between never-thick orchestral textures and an immediate expressiveness. The sound atmosphere shimmers between Eros and danger so that the one and a half hours are dramatically perfect. Benjamin also writes especially well for singers… [the score] exploits physical and vocal extremes…’
Süddeutsche Zeitung (Michael Stallknecht), 25 July 2013
‘The heated story, based on a medieval template, has been ‘cooled’ by the librettist Martin Crimp with elements from epic theatre to post-dramatic art-study, which yet never feels cold. ….The director Katie Mitchell has implemented all this brilliantly in the two-story stage design by Vicki Mortimer… This all runs with clockwork precision. It is fascinating to look at, but even more fascinating to listen to… Benjamin's music brings the staging to live. With a few viol sounds the story jumps back in time, only for the lyricism to be destroyed by sharpened outbreaks. Although the music is firmly rooted in the British tradition, and there are audible ties in Benjamin Britten, at no point is the fascinating, colourfully-instrumented opera conventional. The enthusiasm of the premiere audience was encouraging… anyone who loves opera, should not miss this modern masterpiece.’
Abendzeitung München (Robert Braunmüller), 24 July 2013
‘He [George Benjamin] is the illuminator who frames the medieval love triangle with exquisite colorings… Benjamin's classy, timeless beauty conjures up aloofness, whilst the quite tangible drastic action constitutes the charm… The vocal lines, that the composer wrote especially for the throats of these singers, are flattering cantabile… bel canto for the 21st Century. Along with the fabulous orchestration, sometimes with a gently anachronistic beguiling flavour in the pit, gives the 90 minutes a comforting shimmer, that despite all the fascination, also exudes a certain innocence.’
Neue Musikzeitung (Juan Martin Koch), 24 July 2013
‘Lurking sounds, a thriller about power and violence… George Benjamin has composed music of silence, pale, soft sounds, which often fan out and return. Kent Nagano on the podium unfolds a dazzling panorama of grey tones... Music that neither illustrates nor psychologizes and yet describes a cool, but subliminally heady atmosphere of latent violence.’
Schwäbisches Tagblatt (Otto Paul Burkhardt), 26 July 2013
‘Aix-en-Provence, Vienna, now in Munich. Also cheers at the Munich Opera Festival for George Benjamin's 'Written on Skin', and even more for Kent Nagano conducting farewell. For him, this opera is the best introduction to the music of the 21st Century. 'Written on Skin' meets all the criteria of a classic: the libretto is a rich and haunting, a composition structure in which instrumental and vocal lines merge into an intricate network dramatic tonal expression, and the whole thing has lots of esprit for scenic transformations… Under the musical direction of Kent Nagano, Klangforum Wien, together with excellent singers, unfolds a shimmering sound structure, explosive, sensual, on the brink of madness between skin-delicate interpretation and a factory of heavy-blows in the interludes…
Klassik.com (Michaela Schabel), 23 July 2013