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.