The rate at which a George Benjamin opera gestates is glacially slow, and his long-awaited Written on Skin, triumphantly premiered at Aix last summer, has now reached London. And though a 100-minute, interval-free symbolic drama set to post-tonal music might sound rebarbative, it actually makes a riveting evening.
The story which Benjamin and his librettist Martin Crimp have brought to life is based on a medieval Provencal tale of marital jealousy and revenge. A mysterious young artist gets drawn into the relationship between a feudal lord and his repressed and submissive wife: the lord commissions some illuminated paintings, but admiration turns to hate when he discovers that the artist has sexually liberated his spouse.
All this is set in a contemporary framework, with brightly-lit 21-century scenes alongside candle-lit tableaux in a medieval castle; quasi-invisible attendants help the characters with their numerous costume-changes. The whole work is built round a pun: ‘skin’ refers both to the vellum on which the other-worldly artist creates his paintings, and also to the skin on which Nazi doctors tattooed the inmates of Auschwitz. This latter idea only half-works, however, because all the energy of the piece resides in the domestic drama.
And it’s no accident that this should recall the fateful love-triangle of Pelléas et Mélisande, because every page of Benjamin’s music is shot through with echoes of Debussy’s opera, while his sound-world – including viola da gamba and glass harmonica - has the same exquisite purity; Crimp’s libretto enhances this effect through its inventive stylisation.
But the strength of Katie Mitchell’s production lies in the way the dreamlike momentum of the music (conducted by the composer) is bodied forth by its brilliant cast. Tenor Allan Clayton and mezzo Victoria Simmonds double up as minor characters and ‘angels’ who provide a chilling commentary on the behaviour of the protagonists, each of whom comes across with palpitating vividness.
Countertenor Bejun Mehta’s beautifully focused singing allows his role as a sacrificial lamb to resonate hauntingly, while baritone Christopher Purves – who acts as movingly with his voice as he does with his body – becomes the drama’s resonant anchor. Meanwhile the performance of soprano Barbara Hannigan takes the breath away as she modulates from virginal shyness to becoming a ravening Lady Chatterley, before being made to consume the bleeding heart of her young lover in a scene of startling Jacobean horror.