Written on Skin, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, March 2013Posted on 9 March 2013
The ROH Insight Evening for this opera described it as being about sexual emancipation and jealousy with a tragic ending that they declined to specify. The emancipation angle is a good spin for modern audiences, but the story is an old one. A man treats his wife as a chattel and she experiences a sexual awakening with a younger man who works for him. This is the plot of Il Tabarro where the husband kills the lover, but here we also have a nasty epilogue.
The husband, or Protector as he calls himself, is a brutal man who talks about burning villages and making Jews wear yellow. He aims to protect ‘the family’, which in his constricted world is everything, and the young man is there to compose an illustrated manuscript about it. The family seems to reach back into a distant past that endowed him with the house, which he boasts is increasing in value daily. The wife is another matter. Suppressed and unable to grow, she finds an outlet in the young illustrator, and after her husband kills him he serves her his heart to eat. After she fights back, a slow motion scene at the end shows her ascending a staircase and we are told she falls to her death.
The composer George Benjamin is English, but the music has a very French feel, and the opera was first produced to great acclaim at Aix-en-Provence last summer. There are resonances of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, and its sultry shifting soundscapes are interspersed with moments of fierce emotion. Benjamin himself conducted the orchestra, and although the score matched the words of Martin Crimp’s libretto it all seemed a bit pretentious with the characters, particularly the husband, singing as narrators in their own story.
Katie Mitchell’s production did very well to combine a distant past with the present day, the trees growing out of the parquet floor on the lower right suggesting the passing of centuries, while the black clad figures moving in slow motion in the upper left give a connection to the modern forensic world that studies past events. This was all realised in Vicki Mortimer’s excellent doll’s house design, very well lit by Jon Clark.
The singing was outstanding, and Christopher Purves managed to make the husband a more nuanced character than the libretto suggests. Both he and Barbara Hannigan as his wife Agnès came over with huge conviction, and Bejun Mehta sang a fine counter-tenor as the young man.
The problem with this first full scale opera by George Benjamin is its over-layering of meaning, with angels, and black-clad figures moving in slow motion. The effect is very clever, but insufficiently compelling, and the static intellectuality of this 95 minute work suffers by comparison with some other new operas I have seen in recent years at the ENO and the Royal Opera House Linbury Studio.
There will be a BBC Radio 3 broadcast of this opera on June 22, and four further performances on March 11, 16, 18, 22 — for details click here.