BENJAMIN Written on Skin
From its premiere in Aix-en-Provence to performances in Munich, Amsterdam, Toulouse, Florence and London, and with a live CD recording already available (Nimbus, 5/13), George Benjamin’s first full-length opera has already reached audiences across Europe and beyond. It deserves a DVD release as well. This live recording from
the Royal Opera House preserves the original production by Katie Mitchell and gives powerful visual representation to an opera that is to a large extent a drama of the mind.
When Benjamin was commissioned to write an opera for the Aix-en-Provence Festival he was asked to find a theme with local interest. A medieval Provençal folk tale about a love triangle was his choice – a simple story in essence, out of which Benjamin and his librettist, Martin Crimp, weave an opera that works on many levels. Mitchell’s production reflects this, setting the action on a multi-level set with various compartments, including a medieval house and a modern, steel-and-chrome office and operating theatre. Past/present is only one of the layers of complexity. Pictures/reality, truth/lies, freedom/repression and light/darkness (shades of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande) are all developed in a poetic narrative heavy with symbolism, and it helps to watch with subtitles on to catch all the references. Perhaps Mitchell overcomplicates matters by adding extra dimensions in her telling of the tale but her production is striking to watch and always at one with the opera in its searching intelligence.
Filming and sound are both excellent, as one now expects from this source. Benjamin’s score ranges from passages of exquisite iridescence, revealing his debt to Debussy and Ravel, to climaxes that explode with an orchestral violence new to his work. Nothing less would suit the opera’s bloodthirsty climax (had Benjamin and Crimp been watching Titus Andronicus the night before?). The cast is excellent, especially Barbara Hannigan as the wife, combining vocal trapeze-work with a thoroughly modern dramatic intensity, and Christopher Purves in the Golaud-like role of the husband, forever searching for, and denying to himself, the truth. A new opera that will surely repay repeated viewings.