George Benjamin’s opera “Written On Skin” telescopes back and forth through past and present. Based on a vida of the 12th century Catalan troubadour Guillaume de Cabestanh, it takes place in a medieval world where books are precious objects, but references air travel, pornography, and modern feminism. The work, which premiered three years ago, makes a motive of the passage of time. But how has the passage of time affected the work?
A week ago, I sat in on the dress rehearsal of a new semi-staged version of the opera by director Benjamin Davis, conducted by the composer, with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Barbara Hannigan and Christopher Purves reprised their original lead roles of, respectively, Agnès and the Protector. (Tim Mead was the countertenor, playing the Boy.) Further performances of the work are scheduled for March 17 in Madrid and March 19 in London. As I watched, Purves’ authoritarian Protector, in particular, began to seem increasingly familiar.
In working with de Cabestanh’s subject matter, Martin Crimp’s libretto is placed in illustrious company: both Boccaccio’s Decameron and Ezra Pound’s “Canto IV” retell the tale. The contours are broad. A woman is married to one man but loves another; when her husband finds out about her infidelity, he slays her lover. The paramour’s heart is then prepared for dinner, and she unknowingly eats it. (In every version of the story, including “Written On Skin,” it tastes at least agreeably.) When her husband informs her what she has just eaten, she throws herself out the window to her death.
In the Decameron, the love triangle is between the woman and “two noble knights, who had each of them castles of their own, and vassals under their subjection”; Pound refers to the woman’s husband as “an old man seated / speaking in the low drone.” In “Written on Skin,” Agnès’ husband the Protector is a Donald Trump-like figure: greedy, self-righteous, arrogant, “addicted to purity and violence.” The Boy, who becomes her lover, is distant, but, as a maker of books, sensitive and romantic.
The clear choice between husband and lover is Crimp’s addition to the old story. The libretto displays, in places, an unsubtle feminism. (The opera’s Angels, describing Agnès: “Was married at age 14. Can’t write. Not taught to read.”) There is a risk that the Protector could become a cartoon figure, reassuringly medieval in his persistent reminders that his wife is his “property.” By differentiating the two men in this way, Crimp speaks directly to our time: to what extend are people with repugnant views capable of gruesomely repugnant actions?
Purves, who plays the Protector, gives him a honestly-earned wound-tightness in this performance. He is tense and bottled up throughout. In rehearsal, however, he was loose and relaxed—it became apparent how much effort went into his character’s apparent siege mentality. “Why that black smoke in May?,” Agnès asks, and he answers, “We’re burning villages to protect the family.” “Ah. Yes. Good. From what?,” she says. He is brutal, and brutally misguided, but he at least takes all the responsibility for the suffering to himself.
A further humanizing element of the Protector is his love for the Boy and his Book. Is there a homoerotic undertone here, when the Protector, defending his “investment” in the Book, says “I love the Boy,” or when Agnès, now angry with the Boy, asks him if he “bites on [the Protector’s] lips”? The secret page describing the Agnès’ indiscrete romance is written only in words without pictures. Only the Protector and the Boy can read. But the Protector, stunned, consents to reading them to her.
Early in the opera, Agnès encounters the Boy, and the Protector feels her pulling away from him. “All night I hear her eyelashes scrape the pillow / click click / like an insect,” he says. At one quiet moment later in the opera, Purves scraped the plastic back of his chair with his fingernail. That was the exact sound. We’re disgusted with the Protector, but we’re unable to deny his humanity.
The MCO, on its website, writes that the concert version of “Written On Skin” “accentuates the role of the orchestra by placing it on stage.” Of course, most concert operas place the orchestra there, since symphony halls usually don’t have pits; but having the ensemble on stage does change the dynamic of the drama. It gives depth to the references to villagers and war, and adds unconscious authority to the character of the Protector.
This is especially effective when it comes to Benjamin’s “hidden” chords, which are played softly as part of a loud texture, then held over to sound on their own. They call to mind the diverse geographies of the Protector’s fiefdom. Extra players in the orchestra, performing on basso viola da gamba and glass harmonica, provide a diversity of timbre over which the authoritarian husband claims to preside.
Benjamin repeatedly takes the flutes up to one of their very highest pitches—the one that, when I practiced Varèse’s “Density 21.5” as a teenager, scared off my cats and neighbors. MCO flutist Chiara Tonelli told me about those moments, “I hear in my head an extreme strident sound, full of aggression and despair. The high register and the [triple] fortissimo [is] perfectly chosen to make it happen and the three of us feel very unified in that moment. I feel we breath together and we have the same idea of sound and power.” It is palpable that the Protector rules over even this orchestral unity.
Alex Ross, reviewing the premiere of “Written On Skin,” in a staging by Katie Mitchell, wrote, “Future stagings, and they will come, should seek a more fluid response to the opera’s tricky temporal structure.” Davis’ semi-staged version has hit on something promising here. Seeing the Protector raging in front of an entire orchestra may be the trick to giving us the fear of him we need.
At a key moment, though, Benjamin steps back from grand gestures. While Agnès eats her lover’s innards, it’s quiet, and clarinets play low and jokingly. Is this section ironic, absurd, macabre? Jaan Bossier, the MCO’s bass clarinetist, told me, “you kind of hear the heartbeat.” The irregularity of the thumping is both entertaining and grotesque.
Trying to contemplate the parallels between the Protector and the authoritarian figures in the news these days, I got distracted by an image of the heart bouncing around on the plate while Agnès eats it. Crimp and Benjamin’s humor, here, meets up with Pound’s, who wrote a somewhat vulgar rhyme:
“It is Cabestan’s heart in the dish.”“It is Cabestan’s heart in the dish?”“No other taste shall change this.”
This decisive irony, thought not quite the way the opera ends, was a huge relief. It helps prepare the drama for its final passage, which returns the story back to the context of its ancient myth. In the dress rehearsal, a sense of temporal distance to the story was very welcome. I left and I met a friend and we went out for a veggie burger. ¶