Modern master and composer George Benjamin’s opera, Written on Skin is now being presented by Opera Philadelphia at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music only until February 18. Written on Skin is an extraordinary work of considerable beauty which should not be missed.
Written on Skin premiered at Aix-en-Provence in 2012, and has enjoyed several productions since, especially one at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Opera Philadelphia once again stands at the vanguard with this handsome new production, the first of its kind in the United States. The good news is it’s a wonder from start to finish. It looks beautiful, sounds beautiful, and is beautiful. Written on Skin has it all, spellbinding direction and unit set from director Will Kerly and designer Tom Rogers, to fascinating story from librettist (also called playwright) Martin Crimp and composer George Benjamin, idiomatic conducting from Corrado Rovaris and his fine orchestra, to excellent singing from the cast.
The Final Dress Rehearsal on February 7 was an invitation to local schools to see the opera. There was a handsome program with libretto given to the students. It is from this that much information can be found. We learn that Martin Crimp fashioned the libretto from a real 13th century troubadour tale of secret passions, infidelity and retribution. Drawing upon other sources we may freely associate with Tristan and Iseult, Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books, with a tad of Titus Andronicus, Crimp has balanced the medieval tale of a powerful landowner, The Protector, who wants a book, a precious commodity that only few can make with precious gems and gold on animal skin which only an artist, named only as Boy, can create, along with scenes from the future, where angels are destroying industrialized society, returning to the green and natural Earth of past centuries.
Written on Skin exists in both future and past, with several characters as angels as well as protagonists in the fable. Anthony Roth Costanzo is outstanding as both Boy and Angel. Listed as a countertenor, his is an especially flawless instrument more akin to a soprano than to a countertenor. Lauren Snouffer is Agnes, The Protector’s wife. It is difficult to believe that this role can be better sung by anyone else today. Ms. Snouffer does it all, and seemingly effortlessly in a bravura performance. Mark Stone is The Protector. His measured baritone is lovely to hear, with clearly elicited diction. Second Angel and Marie is Kristina Szabo and Third Angel and John is Alasdair Kent.
Let all qualms you may have about modern opera fall by the wayside. Written on Skin is a compelling drama told in a fascinating way with beautiful music. The composer uses novel and exciting musical interludes. Benjamin uses unexpected instruments, bass viol, and, especially, glass harmonica to telling effect. He doesn’t shy away from using the ordinary in extraordinary ways. Pebbles and a typewriter find themselves in use alongside a mandolin and mini tablas. Only a few performances remain. You owe it to yourself to see a great new classical work presented in a lavish and incomparable manner by Opera Philadelphia. Their next production will be Carmen.