Entertainment :: Music

Written on Skin

by Steven Bergman
Contributor
Monday Feb 24, 2014
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The latest opera from British composer George Benjamin, "Written on Skin," effectively exhibits the potential of 21st century opera, and how new entries in this art form can still engage a modern audience.

Opus Arte has released the 2013 Royal Opera House production on Blu-ray, and the economical work (only 90 minutes in length) packs a wallop. The juxtapositions of time periods, embodied in a two-level set designed by Vicki Mortimer, and Benjamin’s cohesive setting of Martin Crimp’s text, create a well-defined world where angels take it upon themselves to generate upheaval in the 13th century home of a Protector and his wife, Agnès.

Baritone Christopher Purves (Walt Disney in Philip Glass’ "The Perfect American") gives a strong performance as the Protector, a landowner who commissions a young artist (known only as "Boy") to draw an illuminated page for him of his life as Paradise verses his impression of Hell. As the Protector’s wife, Barbara Hannigan stunningly guides us through Agnès’ journey from a subservient "wife-child" to a woman who becomes cognizant of her sexual desires and impulses, discovered through a tryst with the Boy, while still being ignored by her husband.

The Boy, purposefully performed by countertenor Bejun Mehta (cousin of famed conductor Zubin Mehta), is both one of the angels, and the catalyst for the destruction of the Protector’s house; at times the lover of Agnès, the potential seducer of the Protector, and even the fabricated lover of Agnès’ sister, Marie (Victoria Simmonds). Mehta’s voice is, both literally and figuratively, angelic, strengthening his appearance of innocence in this love triangle, even though his actions are the cause of the conflict.

The opera’s in three parts, each running approximately 30 minutes. Benjamin’s innovative orchestrations include the ethereal use of the glass harmonica, and his dynamic explosions of volume emphasize the varying moments of tension throughout the opera. The production received glowing reviews at its French premiere, and now we have the opportunity to understand why on this recording.

"Written On Skin"
George Benjamin
DVD and Blu-ray formats
Opus Arte

Steven Bergman is a Composer / Playwright / Performing Arts Educator based outside of Boston, MA.

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