Following the enormous success of George Benjamin’s first opera Into the Little Hill(2006), there has been huge anticipation in the musical world at the prospect of his first full-length work in this genre. After a period of intense work and isolation for Benjamin, his much-awaited new opera, Written on Skin, was premiered at the Aix-en-Provence Festival on 7 July. A long standing ovation was the first of many marks of recognition and praise for this extraordinary work which has been hailed by critics as ‘[one of] the best operas of the 21st century so far,’ ‘the birth of a masterpiece.'
The text, by playwright Martin Crimp, is based on an Occitan legend from the 12th century. Crimp describes the plot:
‘A rich lord welcomes into his house the artist he has commissioned to complete a book of illuminations. This work, he hopes, will immortalise the ruthless practice of his political power and the calm contentment brought to him by domestic order, embodied in the humility and childish obedience of his wife Agnes. However the creation of the book becomes a catalyst for his wife’s rebellion. After a first successful attempt at seduction, Agnes uses her new intimacy with the illuminator to change the very content of the book and so forces her husband to see her as she really is. This opens the path for an extraordinary and final act of provocation.’
Written on Skin lasts c.95 minutes (the composer’s longest span of music to date) and is scored for an orchestra of 60 players with some unusual additions including a bass viola de gamba and a glass harmonica. In Benjamin’s masterful hands the beautiful, shape-shifting orchestra wraps itself around beguiling vocal lines that interweave in a manner reminiscent of Purcell’s greatest vocal works.Performed exquisitely in this case by the premiere cast including: Christopher Purves baritone, Barbara Hannigan soprano, and Bejun Mehta countertenor. They were joined by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, conducted by the composer. Stage direction was by Katie Mitchell and sets/costumes by Vicki Mortimer.
UK audiences have the opportunity to watch a live screening of the Aix performance at the French Institute in London on 14th July.
***The vocal score of Written on Skin is available to buy here***
‘the best since Wozzeck’
'A great moment of opera itself'
‘spell-binding…. magical… remarkable’
‘[one] of the best operas of the 21st century’ 'George Benjamin has written nothing better... and that's saying something'
‘The creation of a contemporary opera where the composer is given a spontaneous standing ovation, this does not happen every day…We leave the opera house so in love that we cannot repress a vague feeling of having witnessed the birth of a masterpiece… Benjamin composes music at once haunting and sensual, perfectly built over time and greatly varied throughout the scenes. It follows the plot without difficulty, its constant color changes ward off any sense of monotony. The astonishing text by Martin Crimp on very cinematic canvas is always intelligible… A great moment of contemporary opera? A great moment of opera itself.’ Le Figaro (Christian Merlin), 10 July 2012
‘Written on Skin is a fully fledged stage work. It may have only five singing roles but it belongs, unmistakably, in an opera house, unlocking so much more of the dramatic potential of Benjamin's music… What drives the opera's three parts is Benjamin's score, which is more impassioned, more sensuously beautiful and, at times, more fiercely dramatic than anything he has written before. The intertwining of the voices of Agnès and the Boy, soprano and counter tenor, often with just the sparest accompaniment, is spell-binding; the ability to crystallise a whole mood in a single mysterious orchestral chord or a bare, ticking percussion clockwork is magical. The large orchestra is used with maximum restraint, given its head only in the interludes that separate some of the scenes…What Benjamin and Crimp have done is remarkable…’
The Guardian (Andrew Clements), 8 July 2012
‘…it is rare that a long standing ovation and sound today welcomed the creation of an opera, especially if it does not succumb to the lure of easy-listening…. the work is demanding, dense, and intricate… [with] intriguing and mysterious poetry. Written on Skin is a true opera, with all its ingredients (love-triangle between wife-husband-lover, love and murder, play within a play, songs, sets, etc.). The music is incredibly beautiful: ribbed textures, subtle colors, flowing harmony of the simplest kind, [as well as] the most saturated, inherited harmonic assemblages invented by the musicians of the 1970s. The orchestra, sometimes extremely violent, but also sublimely thrilling (e.g. mixtures of glass harmonica sounds and viola da gamba), never covers the voices and glows around them in close harmony. Note the exceptional quality (detail, assembly, accuracy) of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, wonderfully conducted by the composer… this is the best opera written for twenty years… the best since Wozzeck (1922) by Alban Berg. In other words, Written on Skin is the pinnacle of contemporary output…’
Le Monde (Renaud Machart), 10 July 2012
‘Benjamin’s poly-stylistic, open musical language … throws open the sensual dramatic possibilities of the full orchestra. His music explores the velvet, loose interplay of solo instruments and vocal lines, exemplified in the case of world-class singers Barbara Hannigan (Agnes) and Bejun Mehta (The Boy). This music is vocal splendour… the orchestration is stormy, sweet, beguiling, laconic and even disturbing.’
Die Welt (Joachim Lange), 9 July 2012
'George Benjamin has written nothing better than this dark, erotic, violent and troubling opera — and that’s saying something. The 52-year-old British composer has been on an upward curve for years. Now, with the playwright Martin Crimp, he has produced a slow-burning but gripping 100-minute psychological chiller in which moods, mysteries and motives are evoked with stunning economy of musical means... Stratospheric violin counterpoints conjure intense creepiness, a bluesy muted trumpet speaks of sexual tension, frenetic clarinet whoops accompany a snatched illicit congress. It’s masterly...' The Times (Richard Morrison), 12 July 2012
‘George Benjamin’s second opera, given its world premiere at Aix-en-Provence Festival this weekend, has been awaited with feverish excitement… [the] score is atmospheric, descriptive, sensual and evocative. A viola da gamba and liberal reference to early music help to give a sense of time. Benjamin uses orchestral groups adroitly, sparingly, and tops them with vocal lines that are gloriously singable… the audience jumped to its feet for a standing ovation…Written on Skin will long outlive this run. The piece is superb.’ Financial Times (Shirley Apthorp), 9 July 2012
‘Sparking an instantaneous standing ovation at its world premiere performance last night, Written on Skin is almost certainly headed straight for any list of the best operas of the 21st century so far.’