Music Reviews
11:58 am
Fri October 4, 2013

This Opera Will Eat Your Heart Out

Originally published on Tue October 22, 2013 9:05 am

The British composer George Benjamin has quietly developed a reputation for serious, meticulous work. His creative output is limited because he proceeds very slowly. I first heard his music in 2000, when no less a conductor than Pierre Boulez led a piece of his at Carnegie Hall. But after the premiere of his first full-length opera at the Aix-en-Provence Festival last year, his reputation seems to have taken off. The New Yorker's Alex Ross called it "the work of a genius unleashed."

The opera, Written on Skin, has a libretto by the prolific English playwright Martin Crimp. It's his second collaboration with Benjamin, and they're already planning another one. Written on Skin is both beautiful and bleak, with darkly translucent orchestration that includes mandolin, viola da gamba, and an eerie glass harmonica.

Since the Festival at Aix was the initial commissioner, the one stipulation was that the opera had to have something to do with that region of France. So Crimp's libretto is based on a 13th-century Provençal tale about a wealthy and powerful landowner — Crimp calls him the Protector — who takes in a young artist to paint a book on vellum or parchment (on skin) that glorifies all the owner's possessions, including his young wife. When the Protector discovers that the artist is sleeping with his wife (another kind of writing on skin), he murders the artist and feeds his heart to the wife. In the opera, the wife sings ecstatically that nothing can ever take away the sweet/salty taste of her lover's heart. Then, before her husband can kill her, she leaps to her death from a balcony. In the concert version I heard this summer at Tanglewood's Festival of Contemporary Music, the young professionals that Benjamin himself conducted made it hair-raising.

This opera is not the traditional collection of arias and recitatives. Like two of its great antecedents, Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande and Berg's Wozzeck, it's really a setting of a play divided into short scenes, with some of the best music coming between the scenes. Benjamin considers opera a very artificial form, and the libretto emphasizes this artificiality by having the characters frequently refer to themselves in the third person, so that they both live their experiences and sing about them. There's also a mysterious overlapping of time. The opera takes place in both the 13th century and in our own time. Three Angels, who are both narrators and characters — one plays the young artist — sing about how our modern civilization, with its parking lots and international airports, has been built on top of the "heaped-up dead." In a nightmare, the self-absorbed Protector is having, the Angels sing: "What kind of man will not see?"

Such a grim subject is not unheard of in opera. Bodies pile up in many of the most popular of them; Puccini's Tosca also jumps to her death. But in few operas does all the mayhem express what underlies Written on Skin: a profound awareness of human cruelty and its inextricable connection to passion and art. That tension fills every bar of Benjamin's brutal and ravishing score.

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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Very few new operas get the kind of international attention that British composer George Benjamin's "Written on Skin" has received since its world premiere in France last year.

Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz attended the American premiere at Tanglewood this past summer and says it more than lives up to its hype. Here's his review.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM GEORGE BENJAMIN'S, "WRITTEN ON SKIN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Sung in Foreign Language)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Sung in Foreign Language)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN AND WOMAN: (Sung in Foreign Language)

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: The British composer George Benjamin has quietly developed a reputation for serious, meticulous work. His creative output is limited because he proceeds very slowly. I first heard his music in 2000, when no less a conductor than Pierre Boulez led a piece of his at Carnegie Hall. But after the premiere of his first full-length opera at the Aix-en-Provence Festival last year, his reputation seems to have taken off. The New Yorker's Alex Ross called it, the work of a genius unleashed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The opera, titled "Written on Skin," has a libretto by the prolific English playwright Martin Crimp. "Written on Skin" is both beautiful and bleak, with darkly translucent orchestration that includes mandolin, viola da gamba, and an eerie glass harmonica.

SCHWARTZ: Since the Festival at Aix was the initial commissioner, the one stipulation was that the opera had to have something to do with that region of France. So Crimp's libretto is based on a 13th-century Provencal tale about a wealthy and powerful landowner - Crimp calls him the Protector - who takes in a young artist to paint a book on vellum or parchment --on skin - that glorifies all the owner's possessions, including his young wife. When the Protector discovers that the artist is sleeping with his wife - another kind of writing on skin, he murders the artist and feeds his heart to the wife. In the opera, the wife sings ecstatically that nothing can ever take away the sweet/salty taste of her lover's heart. Then, before her husband can kill her, she leaps to her death from a balcony. In the concert version I heard this summer at Tanglewood's Festival of Contemporary Music, the young professionals that Benjamin himself conducted made it hair-raising.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCHWARTZ: This opera is not the traditional collection of arias and recitatives. Like two of its great antecedents, Debussy's "Pelleas and Melisande," and Berg's "Wozzeck," it's really a setting of a play and divided into short scenes with some of the best music coming between the scenes. Benjamin considers opera a very artificial form, and the libretto emphasizes this artificiality by having the characters frequently refer to themselves in the third person, so that the characters both live their experiences and sing about them.

There's also a mysterious overlapping of time. The opera takes place in both the 13th century and in our own time. Three Angels, who are both narrators and characters - one of them plays the young artist - sing about how our modern civilization, with its parking lots and international airports, has been built on top of the heaped-up dead. In a nightmare, the self-absorbed Protector is having, the Angels sing: What kind of man will not see?

This excerpt is from the CD of the premier in France.

(SOUNDBITE OF CD, "WRITTEN ON SKIN")

UNIDENTIFIED MEN AND WOMEN: (singing) (unintelligible) Say the book. The book needs saving. The book keeps calm. Save the book. Go rant. (unintelligible) Not just, not just the book. Save the book. Save. Comes from the book. Save it (unintelligible) by the skin. Where the skin got on, never dries. Skin stains. (unintelligible) What? What? What? What? What? Like a hole on (unintelligible). Yes. What?

(singing) What? What? What? What, what, what, what, ho. What? Egg. (unintelligible) What kind of man will not - what kind of man will not see? What kind of man will not, will not see?

SCHWARTZ: Such a grim subject is not unheard of in opera. Bodies pile up in many of the most popular of them; Puccini's Tosca also jumps to her death. But in few operas does all the mayhem express what underlies "Written on Skin": a profound awareness of human cruelty and its inextricable connection to human passion and art. That tension fills every bar of Benjamin's brutal and ravishing score.

DAVIES: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the FMA creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed George Benjamin's opera "Written On Skin" which is available on a Nimbus CD. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film "Gravity" starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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