Written on Skin – an Opera
So – why write a review of an opera that has completed its run and that was performed several thousand miles away? Because both operas and readers of reviews travel, and perhaps the information provided will have some future value.
Bay Area theater and opera lovers traveling to London relish the opportunity to select from the abundance of its great cultural offerings, and the Royal Opera House is home to one of the world’s finest opera companies. The house is more familiarly known as Covent Garden, for its location, which is also famous to theater and musical lovers as the site where Eliza sold her flowers in George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” the basis for Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady.”
First, the house – a delight to experience in its own right, Covent Garden’s exterior is a colonnaded, classical Greco-Roman design. Similar to many major European opera houses, its interior has a jewel box appearance, fancy and gilded, with a predominance of red color from the seating. At 2,256 seats it is around 1,000 seats smaller than San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, and it benefits from warm, full acoustics, particularly in the amphitheater level. Like War Memorial, Covent Garden hosts ballet as well.
The house undertook a major renovation in the 1990s, with the integration of the adjacent “Floral Hall” which was a structure used by the floral industry. It is a huge, glassed barrel vault that adds a stunning visual element which contrasts in design with the classicism of the house proper. Its functionality is that it adds vast food and drink facilities as well as open escalator transit to the amphitheater level.
“Written on Skin,” with music by George Benjamin and text by Martin Crimp is one of the most respected operas of the new century. Co-commissioned by the Royal Opera with three other companies, it’s validation is affirmed by the Royal Opera’s decision to reprise it only three years after the London debut. Further, the company has commissioned another opera by the same creative team.
The libretto draws from the pen of medieval Occitan-language (dialect then spoken in Mediterranean regions of France, Italy, and Spanish Catalonia), poet Guillem de Cabestaing. The central events are that a man’s wife cavorts with another; the husband kills the paramour; cooks his heart; and serves it to the unsuspecting wife in a pepper sauce. So the libretto has undeniable dramatic impact.
However, much about the libretto and the staging seems designed to demonstrate cleverness rather than clarity. Players confusingly speak in and about themselves in both first and third persons. Anachronistic references to modern conventions such as car parks and air miles loyalty accounts disrupt flow and intensity, when the main theme stands alone without needing diversions.
Presented in 15 scenes, events are supported by music that adherents of the modern idiom would find appealing. The composer provides a varied orchestral score, including what seems to be Asian influence and a keen use of percussion. Vocal lines are distinguished by the use of the countertenor voice in the young paramour, an unusual feature outside the baroque period of opera, and some piercing expressions from the wife’s soprano that make Strauss’s Elektra seem demure in her vocalization.
The three lead principals are outstanding in voice and acting. Barbara Hannigan is writhing and screeching as Agnes, and baritone Christopher Purves is looming and menacing as her husband, The Protector. They both repeat the roles they created in the multi-location premieres of the piece. Iestyn Davies portrays a youthful innocence in look and voice as The Boy.
The staging is compelling. The scenic design is split into two levels, and each level is partitioned. All of the essential action occurred on the lower level, which is usually divided into three areas, a modern dressing room, a medieval household room, and an outdoors or a stairwell. “Upstairs” is dominated by a stark looking office environment. Both stage and costumes are color washed to provide a sepia to black and white overall appearance. Lighting is highly effective, as the partitioning facilitates compartmentalized effects. The appearance in the modern elements is a cold, sterile look produced by numerous equally spaced, exposed fluorescent light tubes. Compartments representing the earlier period are somber and glow with warm amber.
Primary action is well managed on the ground level. Upstairs is a distraction with supernumeraries in black and white moving about in slow motion. But with a libretto that is challenging to begin with, this feature adds confusion without adding substance. After the performance, a woman was heard saying, “Every time I thought I was figuring it out, I found myself lost again.” There is something instructive in that comment. As a recommendation, read the synopsis ahead of time. The sacrifice is not experiencing surprise in the storyline, but the plot will unfold with much greater understanding, and it will be easier to enjoy.
In any case, the opera is recommended, as is attending any production of the Royal Opera at Covent Garden.