Royal Opera House, London

Classical review: Written on the Skin - Gourmet braised heart, sweet'n'sour

5.00

A brilliant collaboration cooks a mediaeval love story into a crisp modern fable, with delectable orchestration on the side

Adapted from the legend of Guillem de Cabestaing, the troubadour whose heart was fed to his lover by her husband, Written on Skin has arrived at the Royal Opera House garlanded with praise from its Aix-en-Provence premiere. George Benjamin's second opera with Martin Crimp is, in Crimp's words, "a hot story in a cool frame": a 90-minute sequence of gilded miniatures in which the contemporary is erased and the dead snap back to life, monitored by a septet of enigmatic angels.

In Katie Mitchell's production, that cool frame is further refined. Vicki Mortimer's split-level set contrasts the rough floors and dark forest of mediaeval France with a modern laboratory where angel-archivists preserve the fragile artefacts of an 800-year-old story. Mortals and angels move through past and present, blinking in surprise at the fluorescent light, slowing their movements to the pulse of Benjamin's music and the crisp interplay of vowel and consonant in Crimp's impeccable vocabulary of rage and desire.

Agnès (Barbara Hannigan) is childless and illiterate, married at 14 to The Protector (Christopher Purves), a man "addicted to purity and violence". Does she seduce the Boy/Angel 1 (Bejun Mehta), who is commissioned to immortalise The Protector's life in an illuminated book? Or does he seduce her? Her fall is preordained, and her sister (Victoria Simmonds) and brother-in-law (Allan Clayton) are also angels in disguise.

The orchestra, cast and stage are bigger, but the sharp focus of Crimp and Benjamin's 2006 collaboration, Into the Little Hill, remains. Crimp's text is spare and poetic, precise and effective in its language of erotic obsession, with insistent variations ("wet like a woman's mouth", "wet as the white of an egg") and a fixation with the "secret bed". But Crimp's Boy is curiously detached: an agent of liberation and damnation, with a voice of lethal androgynous sweetness.

Benjamin cites his favourite operas as Pelléas et Mélisande and Wozzeck, but only occasionally does he relax into the blue-green shadows of Debussy or the convulsive violence of Berg. Faint echoes of Britten's Canticles in the word-setting evaporate on close listening. Benjamin is sparing in his use of melisma, self-effacing to the extent that Crimp's text leaves more impression than the vocal lines. It is the orchestral writing that lingers in the ear, the damp, furtive woodwind, the muted horns, the whine of a bow drawn across the rim of a bell, the moondrunk glass harmonica, the delicate tracery of viola da gamba, icy and ephemeral.

With each use of indirect speech, Benjamin and Crimp compel the listener to step back. Even the horrible climax, where Agnès exults in the disgust of devouring her lover's heart, is controlled. Her suicidal ascent is enacted in slow motion over a vaporous sheen of strings as we close the ancient book with latex-gloved hands, never to see her leap.

A faultless orchestral performance and singing of incredible energy and beauty from Hannigan and Purves make Written on Skin remarkable. Whether a work so absolute in its perfectionism could withstand a staging less attuned to that aesthetic than Mitchell's remains to be seen.

Such perfectionism wouldn't go amiss in The Siege of Calais (Hackney Empire, London ***), wild card in English Touring Opera's spring season. Donizetti's unfairly neglected opera suffers from scruffy blocking and a radical amputation of its third act in James Conway's production, updated to the 20th century and set against a broken sewer-pipe.

Powerful, stylish and supple performances from Helen Sherman (Aurelio), Paula Sides (Eleonora) and Eddie Wade (Eustachio) anchor a work of high moral purpose in which six men decide to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their community. Jeremy Silver conducted the orchestra with panache but I worried for the baby son (a swaddled doll), casually passed from citizen to citizen. I've seen baguettes handled with more care. Especially in Calais.

Christopher Rousset's concert performance of Lully's Phaëton (Barbican, London ****) was blessed by an orchestral performance of unstinting suavity. While British Baroque specialists still tremble at every tricky musical ornament, Les Talens Lyriques play with such fluency that decorative details never interrupt the curve of a phrase, the strings mellowed by flutes or brightened with oboes. This bouyancy extends to Rousset's choir, its haute-contres trilling prettily at the cadences. In a mixed-ability cast, Andrew Foster-Williams's burnished Epaphus, Sophie Bevan's plangent Libye and Ingrid Perruche's fretful Clymène stood out for the depth of their characterisations. Though pilloried for his attitude to his rivals, Lully was a keen observer of human (and godly) frailty: vanity, ambition and self-deception.

'Written on Skin' (020-7304 4000) Mon and Fri (returns only); 'The Siege of Calais', Exeter Northcott (01392 493493) Fri, then touring

Critic's Choice

Ian Page and the Classical Opera Company present the UK premiere of Telemann's 1726 opera Orpheus as part of the London Handel Festival at St George's Church, Hanover Square (Monday). Stefan Janksi directs the Royal Northern College of Music's bright young things in Paradise Moscow, Shostakovich's satire on corruption in a housing development in the Krushchev era. It's at the RNCM Theatre, Manchester, (from Thu).

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen