Written on Skin was, to me, quite mystifying – both in itself and the rave reviews. Quoth the ROH: “Since its premiere at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012 it has been performed worldwide in numerous productions, to widespread acclaim”. The Guardian and The Telegraph reviews of the 2013 production, for example, corroborate the excellent reception (“a musical masterpiece” and “music of genius”, respectively).
Despite some interesting moments, Written on Skin left me underwhelmed and unsatisfied. I primarily blame the ROH for their online synopsis, which makes no effort to suggest that it is anything other than traditional. If you’re not a fan of insistent post-modern deconstruction in your operas, then this probably won’t be for you.
The main narrative traces over a medieval Occitan legend. A powerful lord commissions a young man to create an illuminated manuscript to preserve his legacy. The lord invites the young man into his home, against the protestations of his wife Agnes. Indifference soon turns into curiosity, and then lust. Discovering the affair, the lord murders the young man and serves his heart to Agnes. Overcome with grief and terror, she escapes his clutches and commits suicide.
Interwoven with this ‘history play’ is a meta-narrative involving strange figures, dressed head to foot in black. They are at once figures of modern life and also messengers, angels in a schematic microcosm. Initially just a chorus, gradually they seep into the past and ‘stage manage’ it; time freezes, the living becomes inert, and the story becomes theirs to rearrange. There is a neat visual juxtaposition when the protector, lordly in bearing, suddenly becomes a helpless mannequin in their arms.
Director Kate Mitchell reprises her original production with a sectioned, two-level design; impressively, the number and size of the compartments shift throughout the performance. Jon Clark’s light design was beautiful, although at times the cast were a bit too obscured.
However the messengers would wander through the modern sections, affecting an interminable slow motion and performing unidentifiable tasks. The Guardian’s 2013 review suggests that they were archaeologists, but there were scant hints to this. I would never have guessed it from my (admittedly short) stint as an archaeology student.
No matter: for the most part their movements are an unnecessary distraction, save perhaps for the finale. When Agnes climbs the stairs to her impending death, the protector is joined by the figures in a meticulous chase scene. Yet this, and the other striking tableaus which Mitchell creates, aren’t recompense enough.
In a similar vein, I found Martin Crimp’s libretto to be melodramatic rather than innovative. Characters referring to themselves in the third person only reminded me why you rarely see this conceit (because it quickly gets obnoxious); I’m not sure why it’s now laudable. References to modern life are made in a way that (mostly) lacks lyricism or poetry. To me, the text feels les philosophical than muddled.
There was a really humorous scene when the boy reveals his manuscript to the lord. The tone is one of awe and reverence, but the boy’s description is actually of the inanities of modern life – the car park, a shopping centre, an airport. It is comically absurd; the problem is with material that is absurdly serious.
By contrast George Benjamin’s score was lovely, if in a conventional sort of way. At times it veered into an indistinguishable soundscape rather than an independent voice. Here it benefited from a fascinating choice of instrumentation, including mandolins and a glass harmonica, which brought each scene to life. The orchestra, under Benjamin’s conducting, was of course impeccable.
I also thought that the cast was very good. Christopher Purves combines a strong, rich voice with a commanding presence for an all-round excellent performance. Barbara Hannigan does comparably well, although her role is itself generally more muted. Iestyn Davies’s counter-tenor is undeniably remarkable, with an otherworldly, almost unsettling timbre to his voice.
One of my friends dismissed Written on Skin as a piece of performance art rather than an opera. Certainly the comparison feels apposite. On the whole, I probably got more enjoyment (and comprehension) from reading the reviews than I did from seeing the piece. Yet I can’t begrudge anyone who found this opera stimulating and exciting; I reserve my judgement for the skin-deep advertising.