LENOX, MA — Over the past few years, some of the greatest opera performances I've seen haven't been at the Met or City Opera, but at Tanglewood. Using the full weight of his influence as the Met's artistic director, former BSO Music Director James Levine brought some of the greatest singers of our time to the Berkshires, performing everything from Verdi's Don Carlo and Berlioz' Damnation of Faust to Wagner's Die Walküre, Gotterdammerung, and Die Meistersinger.
Performances of such weighty masterpieces at a summer music festival would be notable in their own right. But what was truly remarkable about these performances is that, in each case, the pit band wasn't the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or some other group of professionals; it was the TMC Orchestra, made up entirely of Fellows from the Tanglewood Music Center. Most of these kids—most under 25—had never even heard Wagner or Verdi before, much less played them.
As amazing as those performances were, they were all established masterpieces that the kids could reference on countless recordings by the finest orchestras in the world. But, what if they were asked to perform the U.S. premiere of a brand new opera that has been hailed as the greatest opera written in the past quarter-century, with the composer on the podium? Gulp.
That's precisely what I witnessed Monday night, when the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music closed with George Benjamin's Written on Skin, in its first-ever stateside performance. Critics have been falling all over themselves with praise for this opera since the work's premiere last summer in Aix-en-Provence. (Witness Alex Ross' breathless review of its staging at Covent Garden in March.) Indeed, Ozawa Hall was nearly full for this performance, with a spillover audience that stretched far back on the lawn.
So, how did the U.S. premiere of such an important new work end up at Tanglewood? Credit Festival of Contemporary Music director Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who has known Benjamin for nearly 40 years since they met at the Paris Conservatory, where Benjamin was a student of Olivier Messiaen and Aimard studied with Messiaen's wife, Yvonne Loriod. (You can hear Aimard speak about his relationship with Benjamin on this video.) But Benjamin, who has been a frequent guest of the Tanglewood Music Center over the years, also must have been well aware of Boston's peerless tradition of premiering significant new works, including Messiaen's Turangalila-Symphonie, Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, and Ravel's orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition, to name just three composers considered kindred spirits of Benjamin's.
Written on Skin is Benjamin's first full-blown operatic effort, which he says he worked on seven days a week, every week, for more than two years in his London home. ("I almost stopped existing as a human being," Benjamin says in the program notes.) The text, by British playwright Martin Crimp—who also provided the text to Benjamin's 2006 chamber opera Into the Little Hill—is based on a medieval Provençal tale of a wealthy land owner (the "Protector") who commissions an illuminated book from a young artist (the "Boy") that will celebrate his life and deeds. Standing beside is the Protector's wife, Agnès, whom he regards as his property, to be seen and not heard. But, when the Protector leaves, Agnès proceeds to seduce the Boy. The Protector, upon discovering his wife's betrayal, kills the Boy and feeds his heart to Agnès. Far from being cowed, Agnès defiantly proclaims that it's the most wonderful thing she's ever eaten, and that nothing will ever wash away the taste of it from her mouth.
Aside from the graphic storyline, there are a number of unusual elements to Written on Skin, starting with the instrumentation, which includes glass harmonica, viola da gamba, basset horn, bongos, and even a typewriter. ("The idea," Benjamin says, "is to make an orchestral radiance to suggest the art of illumination.") The opera, which lasts about 90 minutes, is performed without intermission and—if Monday is any indication—without applause. The narrative jumps back and forth between the present and the past, often told through a trio of angels who fall in and out of character.
Musically, Written on Skin displays mastery in its avoidance of cliché and cheap imitation. It is also extremely economical: there is not one unnecessary note or overplayed device. It also uses an astonishingly large palette of never-before-heard sounds: the hushed, ethereal songs of the angels; the percussion and strings mimicking the thump of a heartbeat; the deafening interludes filled with ferocious brass and bass drums. Benjamin paints in a mostly tonal idiom, which only makes his crashing dissonances all the more shocking.
Remarkably, all but one of the soloists Monday night were TMC Fellows. Leading the way was Lauren Snouffer, whose portrayal of Agnès was both gripping and terrifying; as with Alban Berg's Lulu and Marie, this is an incredibly juicy role destined to be at the top of every dramatic soprano's to-do list. Countertenor Augustine Mercante was positively ghostly in the split role of the Boy and Angel, bringing to mind John Adams' countertenors in his oratorios El Nino and The Gospel According to the Other Mary. Bass-baritone Evan Hughes, the only non-Fellow, was dark and menacing as the Protector. Mezzo-soprano Tammy Coil and tenor Isiah Bell both provided strong support in the roles of Agnès' sister and her husband, both doubling as angels.
The TMC Orchestra fell short of pitch perfect, but they played with emotion and power under Benjamin's baton, who coaxed them along with a blend of gentle prodding and full-on exhortation. What I wouldn't give to see some video of Benjamin's rehearsals with these players, which might have gone something like this. (Thanks, Alex.)
Written On Skin has already been booked for its first U.S. staged performance at Lincoln Center in 2015. If you want to see it before then, you'll have to fly to Europe, or content yourself with a download of the world premiere recording here. It's worth every penny: Written on Skin is proof positive that tonality doesn't equate to retrograde, that language still wields raw power, that any music this visceral and this dramatic will remain with us as long as there are stages. Long live opera.
More pics on the photo page.