Written on Skin, Royal Opera House, London, review: George Benjamin creates a modern fluorescent-lit world

Benjamin revives his opera with much of the original cast – just three years after its premiere 

Cara Chanteau
Tuesday 17 January 2017 12:46
Iestyn Davies is on eerie form as the First Angel in this Katie Mitchell-directed production
Iestyn Davies is on eerie form as the First Angel in this Katie Mitchell-directed production

Rarely can a new opera have been so universally welcomed as George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, acclaimed as a masterpiece both here and in Europe, and already being revived at the Royal Opera House only three years after its premiere, conducted again by the composer with much of the original cast.
Inspired by a 12th-century troubadour story, a wealthy man (Protector, performed again by a powerful Christopher Purves) takes in an illustrator (eerily otherworldly Iestyn Davies) to immortalise his worldly success in a book. His wife (virtuoso soprano Barbara Hannigan) entices the boy into an illicit love affair, leading the Protector to murder the boy and force his unknowing wife to eat her lover’s heart.

This medieval human drama is literally framed by other timescales cleverly evoked by designer Vicki Mortimer and director Katie Mitchell. A modern fluorescent-lit world of archaeologists documenting the past segues seamlessly into the eternal abode of three angels who both incarnate and dispassionately assist the action. The world is shown as a palimpsest where forests will become shopping-malls.
Musically, the opera sits somewhere between Pelléas and Wozzeck, but that fails to convey either how extraordinarily accomplished the instrumentation is, or how pleasing on the ear. Martin Crimp’s seeming artifice in having the protagonists narrate themselves ends by achieving more resonance and intensity than any mere appeal to emotions could manage.
Performances on 18, 23, 27 and 30 January at 8pm
Box Office: +44 (0)20 7304 4000; www.roh.org.uk

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