" Written on skin "
Opera in 3 acts
- Winner : The Musical Composition Prize 2015
W O R L D P R E M I E R E
July 7th 2012 – Festival d’Aix en Provence, Grand Théâtre de Provence - Christopher Purves / Barbara Hannigan / Bejun Mehta / Victoria Simmonds / Allan Clayton / Mahler Mahler Chamber Orchestra - dir. George Benjamin.
N O T E S
OPERA IN FLUX - CHRISTOPHER WINTLE
A friend of George Benjamin’s, the French composer Gérard Grisey, said of his own music that he wanted everything to be in ‘constant flux’. His material would have minimum character to be maximally malleable; his wave-forms would encompass large acoustic spaces, and his writing for instruments would not just deploy ‘pretty colours’ (the French stereotype), but rather probe sonority itself. His music was almost entirely instrumental, and as for opera, it would take him ‘10
years to write one’ – as long as it took Debussy. Like Grisey, Benjamin is a pupil of the French composer Olivier Messiaen, resists over-defined musical ideas, projects across large spaces and has an exceptional, Ravel-like affinity for instrumental sounds. But there the parallel stops. For Benjamin also conducts modern concerts and operas (like Pierre Boulez, say, or Oliver Knussen), and has written for different voice-types with instruments: A Mind of Winter (1981) for soprano (on Wallace Stevens), Upon Silence (1990) for mezzo-soprano (on W. B. Yeats) and Sometime Voices (1996) for baritone (on Shakespeare’s Tempest)). His music, though modernist (and sometimes severely so), can still refer to elements of older music (clear diction, euphonious triads and key centres especially). And his dramatic instinct, already in evidence in his Three Inventions for chamber orchestra (1995), has led to two operas in less than ten years: Into the Little Hill (2006) and the more elaborate Written on Skin (2012), both to texts by the British playwright Martin Crimp. Just as Goethe claimed that Meyerbeer blended an equable German temperament with an Italian affinity for voice, so could it be claimed that Benjamin blends a dramatic English temperament with a French affinity for timbre. But, in fact, his sympathies extend more widely.
For the operatic Benjamin, ‘constant flux’ begins with the drama. Crimp describes his Written on Skin, not as a libretto, but as a ‘text’. Avoiding the conventions of opera, he gathers the basic kinds of theatrical time into a constantly shifting unity – the dramatic (for action), the lyric (for reflection) and the epic (for explicit free-standing commentary). It is a blend that goes further than Brecht’s – in, say, the Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930) – by continually distancing the audience in order to engage it more intensely. At the core there is a triangle of husband, wife and adulterous third party – the Protector, Agnès and the Boy – each of whom refers to him- or herself in both the first and third persons. In the second of the fifteen scenes, for instance, we meet the Protector (a baritone). He sings a conversational arioso, equating his property with the paradise he wants the Boy to paint: ‘And day by day – says the Protector – fruit-trees’; the Boy answers
‘A book costs money, says the boy. A book needs long days of light’. In both cases,
‘says the Protector’ and ‘says the boy’ are set as musical asides, staccato. Similarly when his wife Agnès (a soprano) reacts: ‘No! No! said the woman. Nobody here starves.’ The effect is of a drama workshop where singers remind listeners of the characters they represent. In Scene 4, however, Agnès makes her first lone visit to the Boy: she is predatory but circumspect, while he becomes aware of a ‘situation’. Both start to absorb ‘asides’ into ‘main text’: the Boy utters ‘You’re in my light says the boy’ as a single melodic arch that shores up his identity, while Agnès still refers to ‘the woman’ to promote a link between herself and the figure in the boy’s picture: ‘She doesn’t look real, laughs the woman, that’s not how a woman looks.’ But in the scene 6 – the finale of the first act – Agnès again visits the boy, now by night. She finds the boy has redrawn the picture in her favour. ‘I’ve painted the woman’s heart,’ he sings; she replies, ‘No! not ‘the woman’ – I am Agnès. My name’s Agnès’, and she and the music begin to throb. Significant naming, of
course, is Wagnerian. Yet because the text has started from ‘further out’, this individuation of ‘Agnès’ is, if anything, ‘closer in’. Similarly in the penultimate scene, the Protector insists on calling his wife ‘the woman’ until he reveals she is eating the Boy’s heart, whereupon he calls her, with cruel intimacy, ‘Agnès’.
This novel approach to identity works in with the fluid handling of time, place
and circumstance. This is crucial. The Boy is cast, appropriately, as a counter-tenor
– a modern operatic voice well known from Britten (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Birtwistle (Gawain), Weir (Miss Fortune) and others: he is close to Agnès in age, and the pictures he paints ‘on skin’ will capture the thirteenth-century action for posterity. But he also doubles as one of three angels. These are modern Fates. They deliver the vehement time-travelling prologue, they are choric chroniclers of human horror and serve as unsparing catalysts of an appalling tragedy (there is no chorus per se). They also act as actual or imagined dramatis personae. The second and third angel, for instance, double as Marie’s sister and her husband (mezzo- soprano and tenor), uncannily warning the Protector both in person and in dreams of Agnès’s infidelity; they act out the Boy’s mendacious account of a dysfunctional marital relationship (cruelly holding up a mirror to the Protector’s) and of Marie’s (alias Agnès’s) desire to play Venus, a decadent artist’s model (‘feed me pomegranates and soft-cooked eggs’) and the devil’s whore (‘shut me in eternal darkness with the devil’); finally, though not without internal dispute, they whip- up the Protector’s lethal vengeance against the Boy. Whereas in the first two acts the Boy describes his pictures in a musical ‘miniature’, at the end of the third act he does so posthumously, qua angel. This enables him to complete the narrative and return it to the present: he shows ‘the woman’ leaping to her death to escape the Protector’s knife, falling not just to the ground but rather to a modern car-park.
Bohuslav Martin? once described the deep form of opera as ‘psychological process’. Certainly, audiences will experience Written on Skin in part as a case study in polarised personality: the narcissistic ‘Protector’ expresses his ‘purity’ in his unchallengeable control of others and his ‘violence’, once roused, in pathological destruction even of those whom he most protects. The source of his disorder – if not its effect – is sexual terror. Agnès, the once child bride whom he insists on keeping as a child (and virgin?), looks elsewhere for her gratification: she seduces the Boy, taunts the Protector with her newly acquired sexuality and, revealing a startling pathology of her own, demanding that her young lover uses his pictorial skills to ‘push our love into that man’s eye like a hot needle … make him cry blood’. Indeed, she has a ‘mad scene’ of a kind. The Protector slaughters the boy and bakes his heart in a pie that, with sadistic relish, he has Agnès eat. Agnès in turn commits pre-emptive suicide as the angels look on with ‘cold fascination’. These stark extremes define the musical boundaries (purity, violence, sexuality, wrapt indifference) and explain why the vestigial duets and trios are so minimally interactive (and there is certainly no full ensemble). They also build on the historical achievements of music drama: the Protector’s cross-examination of the Boy recalls Golaud’s pressure on Yniold in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, and
the lover’s congress at the curtain to Act One recalls the hasty curtain to Act One of
Wagner’s Die Walküre as brother and sister start to make love.
On the other hand, the time-travelling of both drama and music enrich this process by way of the contemporary context it drives through a story that is itself rooted in an ‘anonymous thirteenth-century razo (Guillem de Cabestanh – Le coeur mangé). Ancient and modern constantly interpenetrate. The result is a highly compressed new-old musical language of extraordinary contrasts and energy that would have made even Mascagni or Puccini gasp. Indeed, the score unfolds in a suspended time held together by threads of slow sustained notes, whether high, middle or low, through which different kinds of music pass fleetingly. For the second and third of the Angel/Boy’s miniatures, for instance, Benjamin draws on the uncanny glass harmonica and the archaizing antique viol (viols provide the accompaniment to his Upon Silence). By contrast, he has the angels sing right from the start with a wholly contemporary ‘strident’ force (fff) – sounds of a dysfunctional mechanism redolent of Birtwistle or Stravinsky. But these modern sounds return at the end of scenes 5 and 13 to enrich the violence of the ancient Protector, albeit a violence the angels have themselves whipped up. (The crazed scene 13 music is positioned pivotally like the D minor interlude in Act Three of Berg’s Wozzeck.) And at the very end, after the Boy-Angel has brought the fallen woman to rest in a ‘Saturday car-park’ (his repeated monotone is a stock-in-trade of Italian opera), the ‘choric’ music exudes an even greater force: as it splinters into peremptory jabs (ffff) over a throbbing, doom-laden bass, with its note D signalling the highest pathos (as in tradition), the ferocity now speaks for all times.
But Benjamin also finds ferocity in extreme restraint. The music for Written on Skin charts the movement of passion through silence and the barely audible with a relentlessly baited breath. In scenes 4 and 6, Agnès’s seduction of the Boy is under- spoken. In Scene 12, the cuckolded Protector reads to his illiterate wife what the boy has ‘written on skin’ with a ‘barely repressed rage’: his final ‘this is what the woman, what Agnès, what your wife your property – writes the boy – asks me to say to you’ touches the work’s quietest moment (pppp). It is only when he charges into the wood at the end of the next scene to make ‘one long clean incision’ into the Boy’s bone that the sound and fury break loose. Yet even this hubbub is thrown into relief by the ‘tense’ stillness of the start of the next scene (14): the Protector shows Agnès the ‘silver dish’ containing the Boy’s cooked heart to music marked keck (feeling as if about to vomit), with the sporadic clashing of two pebbles breaking the silence like the proverbial drop of two pins. It is a far cry from Shakespeare’s ‘cook’ Titus, who watches Tamora eat her sons amidst murder and mayhem.
Pebbles, though, are the smallest part of an orchestra whose sheer size belies
any definition of Written on Skin as a chamber opera. Benjamin seeks out the right sound – le son juste – just as Crimp hunts down the right word – le mot juste – even going as far as to invent new ‘instruments’: when, say, the Boy, qua angel, describes the two other angels, qua John and Marie, in the ‘shopping mall’, it is ‘fast random
typing from a computer keyboard’ that links past and present. We also hear sleigh- bells, bowed cow-bells and cymbals, a huge percussion section including mokubios and guiro, and a lexicon of modern instrumental devices. Multiple divisions within each orchestral family also serve the word-painting. When, in Scene 4, Agnès’s heart ‘shook at the sight of a boy, the way light in a bowl splits and shakes on a garden wall’, Benjamin gives overlapping patterns to 6 divided violins (muted and pizzicato) supported by 3 solo second violins (tremolando sul ponticelli), flecked by flute, harp and contrabass clarinet. There are many inventions of this kind, made possible by the flexibility of the lyric recitative they support (Benjamin once expressed admiration for the four divided double basses in Act One of Pfitzner’s Palestrina). The orchestra also articulates the overall design. Act One ends with an eroticised silence into which Agnès drops her lowest note (‘Love is an act’); Act 2 ends with full force through which Agnès releases her highest note (‘Make him cry blood’); and Act Three ends by alternating full force with a barely audible high violin supported by a maracas. If the history of opera can be measured by the development of ‘the accompaniment’, then Benjamin’s refined score certainly extends the line.
In times dominated by standard repertory, opera producers have struggled to apply post-modern fluidity to pre-modern stability. But Crimp and Benjamin’s new work throws down the gauntlet: Written on Skin positively demands contemporary staging. Indeed, its copy-book demonstration of opera-in-flux may well set a benchmark for the future.
Christopher Wintle is a Senior Research Fellow in Music and a colleague of George Benjamin’s at King’s College London working on the poetics (crafting) of opera. This year he is making three contributions to the Britten centenary: a paperback reissue of his monograph All the Gods (Plumbago, 2006), an edition of Hans Keller’s Britten: Essays, Letters and Documents (Plumbago) and a study of the Death in Venice rehearsal scores in Rethinking Britten (Oxford University Press)