George Benjamin's Written on Skin
From the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, George Benjamin's new opera Written on Skin, starring Barbara Hannigan and Christopher Purves, and conducted by the composer.
Recorded earlier this year at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
The British premiere production, by the director Katie Mitchell, of George Benjamin's new opera Written on Skin, which was first performed at the Aix-En-Provence Festival in 2012. With a poetic text by Martin Crimp, it has has been hailed by critics as "exquisitely crafted and deeply resonant" (The Telegraph) and "nothing short of a triumph" (The Guardian).
With a beautifully rich score by Benjamin which makes use of instruments such glass harmonica, cowbells and mandolins, the opera is an emotional drama of sex, suicide, murder and cannibalism based on a 13th century Provencal story. A powerful Protector commissions the Boy, a young artist, to create an illuminated book to celebrate his life's achievements; a project which sparks the rebellion of the Protector's wife Agnès and sets the scene for a dramatic act of revenge.
The Protector.....Christopher Purves (bass-baritone)
Agnès.....Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
Angel 1/The Boy.....Bejun Mehta (countertenor)
Angel 2/Marie.....Victoria Simmonds (mezzo-soprano)
Angel 3/John.....Allan Clayton (tenor)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
George Benjamin (conductor).
Scene 1: Chorus of Angels
‘Erase the Saturday car-park from the market place, fade out the living, snap back the dead to life’. A Chorus of Angels take us back 800 years, to a time when every book is a precious object ‘written on skin’. They bring to life two of the story’s protagonists: the Protector, a wealthy and intelligent landowner ‘addicted to purity and violence’, and his obedient wife, his ‘property’, Agnes. One of the angels then transforms into the third protagonist, ‘the Boy’, an illuminator of manuscripts.
Scene 2: The Protector, Agnès and the Boy
In front of his wife, the Protector asks the Boy to celebrate his life and good deeds in an illuminated book. It should show his enemies in Hell, and his own family in Paradise. As proof of his skill the Boy shows the Protector a flattering miniature of a rich and merciful man. Agnes distrusts the Boy and is suspicious of the making of pictures, but the Protector overrules her and instructs her to welcome him into their house.
Scene 3: Chorus of Angels
The Angels evoke the brutality of the biblical creation story, ‘invent man and drown him’, ‘bulldoze him screaming into a pit’, and its hostility to women, ‘invent her / strip her / blame her for everything’.
Scene 4: Agnès and the Boy
Without telling her husband, Agnes goes to the Boy’s workshop to find out ‘how a book is made’. The Boy shows her a miniature of Eve, but she laughs at it. She challenges the Boy to make a picture of a ‘real’ woman, like herself, a woman with precise and recognizable features, a woman that he, the Boy, could sexually desire.
Scene 5: The Protector and the visitors, John and Marie
As winter comes, the Protector broods about a change in his wife’s behaviour. She hardly talks or eats, has started to turn her back to him in bed and pretends to be asleep. but he knows she’s awake and can hear her eyelashes ‘scrape the pillow / like an insect’. When Agnes’s sister Marie arrives with her husband John, she questions the enterprise of the book, and in particular the wisdom of inviting a strange Boy to eat at the family table with Agnes. The Protector emphatically defends both Boy and book, and threatens to exclude John and Marie from his property.
Scene 6: Agnès and the Boy
The same night, when Agnes is alone, the Boy slips into her room to show her the picture she asked for. At first she claims not to know what he means, but soon recognizes that the painted image of a sleepless woman in bed is a portrait of herself, her naked limbs tangled with the covers. As they examine the picture together, the sexual tension grows until Agnes offers herself to the Boy.
Scene 7: The Protector’s bad dream.
The Protector dreams not only that his people are rebelling against the expense of the book, but also, more disturbingly, that there are rumours of a secret page, ‘wet like a woman’s mouth’, where Agnes is shown ‘gripping the Boy in a secret bed.’
Scene 8: The Protector and Agnès
The Protector wakes up from the dream and reaches out for his wife. She, however, is standing at the window watching black smoke in the distance, as the Protector’s men burn enemy villages. She asks her husband to touch and kiss her, but he’s disgusted at being approached in this way by his wife and repels her, saying that only her childishness can excuse her behaviour. She angrily refuses to accept the label ‘child’, and tells him that if he wants to know the truth about her, he should go to the Boy: ‘Ask him what I am’.
Scene 9: The Protector and the Boy
The Protector finds the Boy in the wood ‘looking at his own reflection in the blade of a knife’. He demands to know the name of the woman who ‘screams and sweats with you / in a secret bed’, is it Agnes? The Boy, not wanting to betray Agnes, tells the Protector that he is sleeping with Agnes’s sister, Marie, and conjures up an absurd scene of Marie’s erotic fantasies. The Protector is happy to believe the Boy, and reports back to Agnes that the Boy is sleeping with ‘that whore your sister’.
Scene 10: Agnès and the Boy
Believing that what her husband said is true, Agnes furiously accuses the Boy of betraying her. He explains he lied to protect her, but this only makes her more angry: it wasn’t to protect her, it was to protect himself. If he truly loves her then he should have the courage to tell the truth, and at the same time punish her husband for treating her like a child. She demands that the Boy, as proof of his fidelity, creates a new, shocking image which will destroy her husband’s complacency once and for all.
Scene 11: The Protector, Agnès and the Boy
The Boy shows the Protector and Agnes some pages from the completed book, a sequence of trocities that make the Protector increasingly impatient to see Paradise. The Boy is surprised: he claims that these are indeed pictures of Paradise here on earth, doesn’t the Protector recognize his own family and property? Agnes then asks to be shown Hell. The Boy gives her a page of writing. This frustrates Agnes because, as a woman, she hasn’t been taught to read. But the Boy goes, leaving Agnes and her husband alone with the ‘secret page’.
Scene 12: The Protector and Agnès
The Protector reads aloud the page of writing. In it the Boy describes in sensuous detail his relationship with Agnes. For the Protector, this is devastating, but for Agnes it’s confirmation that the Boy has done exactly as she asked. Excited and fascinated by the writing, indifferent to his distress, she asks her husband to show her ‘the word for love’.
Scene 13: Chorus of Angels and the Protector
The Angels evoke the cruelty of a god who creates man out of dust only to fill his mind with conflicting desires, and ‘make him ashamed to be human’. Torn between mercy and violence the Protector goes back to the wood, and, ‘cutting one long clean incision through the bone’, murders the Boy.
Scene 14: The Protector and Agnès
The Protector attempts to reassert control over Agnes. She is told what to say, what she may or may not call herself, and, sitting at a long dining-table, is forced to eat the meal set in front of her to prove her ‘obedience’. The Protector repeatedly asks her how the food tastes and is infuriated by her insistence that the meal tastes good. He then reveals that she has eaten the Boy’s heart. Far from breaking her will, this provokes a defiant outburst in which Agnes claims that no possible act of violence, ‘not if you strip me to the bone with acid’, will ever take the taste of the Boy’s heart out of her mouth.
Scene 15: The Boy/Angel 1
The Boy reappears as an Angel to present one final picture: in it, the Protector takes a knife to kill Agnes, but she prefers to take her own life by jumping from the balcony. The picture shows her as a falling figure forever suspended by the illuminator in the night sky, while three small angels painted in the margin turn to meet the viewer’s gaze.