by Steven Pisano
Proclaimed an instant modern masterpiece when it premiered almost 6 years ago at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, George Benjamin and Martin Crimp's opera Written on Skin recently received its American premiere at the increasingly edgy Opera Philadelphia under the direction of William Kerley and the musical direction of Corrado Rovaris.
Originally produced in an earthy and rugged style, which was videotaped and released on DVD, the opera has been reimagined in a more sophisticated, almost futuristic staging by Tom Rogers, who also designed the costumes. Loosely based upon the story of Guillem de Cabestany, a Catalan troubadour who lived at the turn of the 13th century, the narrative can be interpreted in different ways.
The basic thrust is that a rich landowner commissions an artist to create a celebratory illuminated manuscript of his life (making sure his enemies are depicted in Hell). The man's wife is excited by the possibilities that the book presents, and begins a sexual relationship with the artist. But because the illuminated manuscript tells all, the landowner soon reads about his wife's betrayal in the book's pages. Enraged, the landowner hunts down the artist, carves out his heart, and serves it as dinner to his wife, who then leaps to her death from a balcony when she learns what she has devoured.
It all sounds so steamy, hot, and lurid. But this new production presents things at a remove. Not only do we see a trio of Angels who seem to pull the strings in a preordained way, but the characters also often talk about themselves in the third person, as if they have no control over where their own story is heading. So while the opera is bursting with lust, betrayal, revenge, murder, and suicide--some really juicy stuff--it is difficult to feel anything strongly for the characters.
The quietly intense music by the British composer George Benjamin is at times suitably lush, and at other times psychologically complex, but it too seems to shy away from being too emotional. The atonal score seems too polite sometimes to convey the volcanic emotions on stage.
Perhaps it is a British versus American thing. While European movies and theatrical productions often aim squarely at the head, the huge successes they frequently receive on their home turf do not always translate to success in the American market, which is often more centered in the heart.
There is also the continuing topic of opera sung in English. Many people feel it is not a language naturally given to the strictures of traditionally operatic music, and the lyrics here often feel crammed in uncomfortably. In a turnabout from the famous scene in the movie Amadeus when the king criticizes Mozart's music, sometimes it seems that there are just too many words. As my English high school teacher always scolded: Show, don't tell.
Despite this veil over the story, the performers themselves are universally exemplary. The crystal-throated Lauren Snouffer has the part of Agnes, the wife, and while not always emphatic as an actor, her singing is always gorgeous. Mark Stone is both strong and vulnerable as Agnes's husband, known as the Protector, which in today's social climate seems even more offensive than it would ordinarily be. We know it is a title meant to describe his role as a landowner in Medieval times, but we see none of that, just his lording over the woman in his life, who he strikingly calls his "property."
The backbone of the production, however, is Anthony Roth Costanzo as the artist, known in the story as the Boy. Costanzo turns in a first-rate performance in a continuing recent trend of countertenors in both high and chamber operas, and even in the West End and on Broadway, as in the recent transfer of Farinelli and the King. His acting is sensitive, his singing is confident, his aura is magnetic.
Only time, and additional productions, will tell if Written on Skin truly is a modern masterpiece. Meanwhile, sophisticated operaphiles eagerly await Benjamin and Crimp's next musical collaboration, Lessons in Love and Violence, which will play the Royal Opera House in the UK in May.
More photos can be found here.