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»Written on Skin«

Sir George Benjamin's opera »Written on Skin« tells the tale of a deadly love triangle – and is already one of the most frequently-performed contemporary stage works today.

Multiverse George Benjamin: In the ongoing season, Sir George Benjamin is Artist in Residence at the Elbphilharmonie, and his works are to be heard in numerous concerts, some of which Benjamin even conducts himself.

»Put out my eyes. Cut out my tongue. Drown. Stone. Nothing will ever take the taste of that Boy's heart out of this mouth.« – These are the last fiery words that Agnès hurls at her furious husband before she throws herself from the balcony. This marks the end of a fatal story full of demonic magic that is nothing if not spellbinding: »Written on Skin«, Sir George Benjamin's first major opera.

First performed in 2012 in the French city of Aix-en-Provence, »Written on Skin« was an immediate smash hit, with critics lauding the 90-minute score as the new reference work of the 21st century. And since its premiere six years ago, Benjamin's opera has been put on more than 100 times in London and Amsterdam, New York and Toronto, Moscow and Stockholm: a sensational success for a contemporary opera.

Power, Passion and Blood

And no wonder: this is a work with many unusual features, starting with the blood-drenched story about a fatal love triangle that playwright Martin Crimp wrote for the opera. It is based on a medieval saga about the death of the Catalonian troubadour Guillem de Cabestany, a historic figure who lived in the 12th century and is said to have fallen in love with the wife of his patron. The opera transforms the story into a modern drama about sensuality and raw violence, subjugation and self-liberation. Crimp and Benjamin already based their first collaboration on material from the past, and they retained this concept in »Written on Skin«: as the composer himself puts it, »Real persons can easily take on an anecdotal or journalistic aura, whereas in stories from the past, even from antiquity, everyone can often recognise some aspect of himself«.

Trailer for the Royal Opera House production with Christopher Purves as Protector, Barbara Hannigan as Agnès and Bejun Mehta as Boy © Royal Opera House

George Benjamin in Interview:

In an interview with the web magazine VAN, Sir George Benjamin talks about the cartoon film that changed his life as a child, about his earliest musical memories, and names the most important thing that he learnt from his legendary teacher Olivier Messiaen.

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With their principle of using opera to tell a story, Benjamin and Crimp have chosen to go against the current trend, which is clearly moving away from storytelling. »Something we have really insisted on is that there should be direct storytelling and that it should be immediately comprehensible to an audience,« writer Martin Crimp explains. »There was something very direct about the story. It contains passion, it contains violence, but there is something very modern about it.«

George Benjamin (left) and Martin Crimp at the Prize-Giving of the Gramophone Contemporary Award 2014
George Benjamin (left) and Martin Crimp at the Prize-Giving of the Gramophone Contemporary Award 2014 © Benjamin Ealovega / Gramophone

A Story of Subjugation and Rebellion

»Written on Skin« is set in the Middle Ages: the Protector, a powerful landowner, rules with an iron hand – not only over his estates, but over his wife Agnès as well. This established order is seriously upset when the Protector hires a young painter by the name of Boy to create an illustrated book presenting an idealised picture of his employer as a god-like individual. Boy paints what he is asked to, but his presence causes Agnès to change too. She gradually sheds her identity as a quiet and obedient wife, and finally asks the painter to depict reality: she wants him to portray her as she really is. In the meantime, visitors warn the Protector about his young guest. But the warnings come too late: Agnès and Boy embark on an affair.

Push our love into that man’s eye like a hot needle. Make him cry blood.

Agnès

Agnès (Barbara Hannigan) and Boy (Bejun Mehta)

© Festival d’Aix-en-Provence 2012 / Bel Air Production pour Arte

The head of the household doesn't fail to notice how his wife has changed, and nightmares haunt him in his sleep. In an argument, Agnès tells him to talk to Boy. When the Protector challenges Boy, he claims that he is having an affair with Agnès's sister Marie in order to protect both himself and his beloved. But Agnès cannot live with this lie: she tells him to reveal the truth in one of his pictures, and make her husband aware of what's happening: »Push our love into that man’s eye like a hot needle. Make him cry blood.«

Aix-en-Provence 2012 © medici.tv

Boy finally does what Agnès asked and unveils a parchment that reveals his secret love affair with Agnès to the Protector. The consequences are disastrous: the Protector kills the painter, and then serves the dead man's heart to his wife for supper. When Agnès learns what she has just eaten, she swears she will have her freedom in a fiery speech, and then leaps from the balcony before her furious spouse can stop her.

Sure, the plot is frightening. But that's exactly what you need on stage: suspense, drama.

George Benjamin

© Steven Pisano / Opera Philadelphia

The Dark Sides of the Human Soul

»Sure, the plot is frightening,« says George Benjamin. »And that's why such materials are a recurrent theme in the history of opera. Even the legends of the ancient Greeks are sometimes terrifying. But that's exactly what you need on stage: suspense, drama. Music theatre confronts the key human challenges, and that includes the dark sides of the human soul.«

I had wanted to write something like this for more than half my life.

George Benjamin

Between Magic and Dark Depths: the Music

This much exudes Benjamin's sensitive and precise, yet dark and uninhibited score. »I use a broad range of instrumental colour, in keeping with the central role that the art of illustration plays in the story.« It is the composer's declared aim to »lend every scene its own atmosphere, with specific colours and rhythms, with film-like cuts in between«. The individual scenes are bound together by musical sequences that recur regularly in the score.

To this end, Benjamin adapts the instrumentation accordingly: the score calls for two pairs each of clarinets, trumpets and percussionists, while the number of strings is reduced. In addition, the orchestra is enriched by the unusual timbres of several exotic instruments, such as the glass harmonica, where the player elicits sound from rotating glass bells by touching them with his moistened finger. This is the instrument whose ethereal sound accompanies Agnès's fall from the balcony. Agnes does indeed fall, but she falls towards heaven.

Glass Harmonica in the Museum Unterlinden, Colmar
Glass Harmonica in the Museum Unterlinden, Colmar © jkb/Wikimedia Commons

A Story for Everyone

The angels also appear to come from an entirely different sphere, especially Boy, whom Benjamin sets apart from the other characters by casting him as a countertenor. Benjamin himself says that the timbre of the falsetto voice produces an atmosphere that is »heavenly and mythical«. One particularly attractive feature here is that the two lovers sing in the same register. This is a sign of their romantic involvement, but also of the fact that the two characters do not have to be a man and a woman. They are interchangeable figures that anyone can identify with, just as Benjamin had in mind.

Boy und Agnès: Written on skin

© Fondazione Haydn Stiftung / OPER.A 20. 21

George Benjamin put the finishing touches to the score of »Written on Skin« on his 52nd birthday. »I had wanted to write something like this for more than half my life, and it came out, and it flowed, as much as anything flows when I compose it«. Asked whether opera is still in any way relevant nowadays, he says: »Opera is the most direct and exciting form of art. How could the art of storytelling ever become irrelevant?«.

Text: Laura Etspüler

Photo Credit:

Title Image: Agnès (Georgia Jarman) © Stephen Cummiskey

Opera is the most direct and exciting form of art. How could the art of storytelling ever become irrelevant?

George Benjamin

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