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
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence