by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, March 25, 2013.
The raw musical talent of the English composer George Benjamin has never been in doubt. In 1976, when he was sixteen, he went to Paris to study with the august Olivier Messiaen, who compared him to Mozart. By the age of twenty, he was receiving ovations at the Proms, in London’s Royal Albert Hall. Such early acclaim might have bred arrogance in some artists, but in the case of Benjamin, a congenial and unassuming man, it seemed to have the opposite effect, engendering caution. Between the ages of twenty and fifty, he worked with conspicuous slowness, often spending years on a fifteen- or twenty-minute piece. The adjectives “exquisite,” “fastidious,” and “immaculate” followed him around in the press, leaving the impression that he was a miniaturist, a creator of musical jewel boxes, rather than the kind of composer who could shake you to the core.
Benjamin’s first large-scale opera, “Written on Skin,” which had its première last summer, at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, and is now playing at the Royal Opera House, in Covent Garden, demolishes that image. The craftsmanship remains: 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 libretto is by the playwright Martin Crimp, with whom Benjamin collaborated on his only previous attempt at music theatre, the 2006 chamber opera “Into the Little Hill.” That piece was an oblique take on the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and “Written on Skin,” too, rings modern variations on ancient material—the legendary life of the Catalan troubadour Guillem de Cabestaing. Like “Pelléas et Mélisande” and “Wozzeck,” two operas that lurk behind it, “Written on Skin” is a love triangle with an unhappy outcome. In the original telling, Guillem falls in love with his patron’s wife, Agnès, and sings her praises. When the lord finds out, he kills Guillem, removes his heart, cooks it, and serves it to Agnès, who, on learning what she has consumed, swears that she will never again eat or drink, so that she can preserve her lover’s taste in her mouth. Fleeing her husband’s wrath, she runs to a balcony and throws herself to her death.
Aware that too many operas have ended with a woman’s perishing, Crimp questions the premises of the genre as he goes. The plot is framed by a trio of contemporary angels who conjure away our world—“Strip the cities of brick . . . strip out the wires and cover the land with grass”—and summon medieval times. The present keeps bleeding through, however; at one point, the Guillem figure, who here becomes a painter of illuminated manuscripts and is called the Boy, has a vision of “this wood and this light . . . cut through by eight lanes of poured concrete.” At intervals, listeners are reminded that in this recovered past Jews are being stoned, that criminals are being tortured, that male bonding can mask homoerotic desire, and, above all, that women are being confined to a status of illiterate obedience. Agnès, whose first word is a defiant “No!,” pushes the Boy to depict the world as it really is and, in her final utterance, suggests that the tale of their love will help to liberate those who hear it.
Benjamin’s score conveys a similar ambivalence about the conventions of operatic doom. It begins with an orchestral melee—brass, winds, and strings swirling into astringent dissonances. Such acts of harmonic aggression are commonplace in the annals of modern music: in Berg’s “Lulu,” a twelve-note barrage signals the murder of the title character. But Benjamin’s dissonances are not just signals of horror. They have their own organic logic, and tend to resolve into simple, sustained intervals. They come across as anguished assertions of will. And in the climactic scene of the grisly meal the chords trade hands in a significant fashion. At the beginning, a series of screaming six-note sonorities frames the icily detached voice of the lord—called the Protector—as he serves his cannibal dish. By scene’s end, as Agnès wends her way toward a convulsive high C, the same chords recur in clipped bursts, their ferocity converted to her cause.
An epilogue adds a dimension of cosmic mystery to an already intricate construction. The angels, observing Agnès’s fall, whisk us back to the paved-over present, their eyes exhibiting “cold fascination with human disaster.” In an interview, Crimp said that he had in mind Walter Benjamin’s famous description of a painting by Paul Klee—the “angel of history” who surveys the wreckage of the past while being blown backward into the future. The opera ends with a similarly fraught image of progress. The lower orchestra heaves a Mahlerian sigh of grief, with a hint of D major darkening to D minor. A glass harmonica and a bass viol float eerie sonorities, suggestive of wan light. But the dominant sound comes from that twitchy ensemble of oboes, trumpets, strings, and bongos, dancing enigmatically in place. The last sound you hear is a high C on the violins, echoing Agnès’s final cry, with maracas rustling underneath. It feels like a question mark hanging over the future of the species.
The inaugural production of “Written on Skin” is by the restlessly inventive theatre director Katie Mitchell. At the outset, contemporary figures flit about in a fluorescent-lit laboratory, apparently engaged in the restoration of a medieval manuscript. So immersed are they in their labors that they begin to reënact the story. The conceit produces some gripping images—at the end, Agnès moves in slow motion up a white concrete stairwell—yet the behind-the-scenes activity periodically disrupts the ebb and flow of the music. Between the second and third scenes, anticipating another entrance by the omniscient angels, Benjamin writes a magical transition in which triads melt into lush dissonances. Onstage, Mitchell’s bustling figures seem indifferent to the gorgeous blossoming of the sound. Future stagings, and they will come, should seek a more fluid response to the opera’s tricky temporal structure.
The opening-night cast at Covent Garden, which duplicates that of the première in Aix, last summer—there is a recording of those performances, on the Nimbus label—had no weak links. The soprano Barbara Hannigan gave a vivid, exacting portrait of Agnès, her voice secure up to high C. The rich-voiced baritone Christopher Purves added wily nuances to the menacing Protector. The countertenor Bejun Mehta exuded sacred passion as the Boy and as the lead angel, airily executing the Handelian ornaments that Benjamin wove into the part. The composer conducted, eliciting lustre and heat in equal measure.
Covent Garden has done Benjamin a favor by lowering ticket prices for the run: the most expensive seats are sixty-five pounds, the cheapest three pounds. The less moneyed classes are, as a rule, more open to new music, and there were no empty seats on the first night. The company used the same scheme for a January revival of Harrison Birtwistle’s “The Minotaur,” which had its première at the house in 2008. It is a grungy masterpiece in an unrepentant brutalist style, with a production, by Stephen Langridge, that wallows in violence and gore. Despite those elements—or, more likely, because of them—the run was essentially sold out. For coming years, Covent Garden has announced commissions from Georg Friedrich Haas, Thomas Adès, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Unsuk Chin, and Kaija Saariaho, among others. Against all odds, London’s plush old house has established itself as a global center for new opera. In comparison, the Met, for all its technological pizzazz, looks archaic.