Written on Skin


Written on Skin opera by Brittish composer George Benjamin to a libretto by Martin Crimp, a Brittish playright. Written on Skin had its first performance at the Grand Théâtre de Provence, France on July 7, 2012. It was soon thereafter produced in Bonn and in Amsterdam. The performance on this disc was directed by Katie Mitchell in March 2013 at the Royal Opera House. Stars Christopher Purves (The Protector), Barbara Hannigan (Agnès, wife of the Protector), Bejun Mehta (Angel 1/The Boy), Victoria Simmonds (Angel 2/Marie), Allan Clayton (Angel 3/John), as well as  David Alexander, Laura Harling, Peter Hobday, and Sarah Northgraves (Angel Archivists). The composer himself conducted the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Designs by Vicki Mortimer; lighting by Jon Clark; fight direction by Kate Waters; produced and directed for screen by Margaret Williams. Sung in English; subtitles in English, French, German, and Japanese. Released 2014, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. The video was shot at 23.976 fps with a Cinemascope (letterbox) picture ratio of 1:2.35 (incorrectly printed on the letterbox as "1:2:35"). Grade B+

This new, avant-garde opera has been seen by a limited number of people in a handfull of live productions and on TV in Europe. Because it's new, I don't want to spoil things by telling too much. I'll give you basic information about the structure of the piece followed by 20 screenshots shown at random (I drew lots).  If you get the disc, I urge you to watch it cold and come up with your own interpretation of what Crimp and Benjamin are doing. Fear not. After you carry this as far as you wish on your own, read the Synopsis in the keepcase booklet. There a clear lineal story for Written on Skin is laid out for you scene by scene by no less an authority than Martin Crimp himself. Thank you, Mr. Crimp.

Here is a shot from the curtain calls introducing you to Martin Crimp on the left and George Benjamin on the right:

The shot below shows the entire stage with lights on. Throughout the show you only see parts of the stage. The four Angel Archivists are taking their bows:

What instrument is this? It's old, not new:

Here a shot of Christopher Purves, whose performance as The Protector makes this into a bit of a "horror opera."


HDVD arts fans know Purves's huge range. Here he is as a hilarious Sir John in Verdi's Falstaff:

And here he plays the biographical role of Walt Disney in The Perfect American:

Written on Skin takes place in an office structure built on the spot where there was in the 14th century a prosperous farmhouse or fortress. I suppose the location could be anywhere in the bloodlands of central Europe. But a better location would be Aix-en-Provence in France. Written on Skin was commissioned by a group of opera companies headed by the Aix-en-Provence Festival. The opera is based on a poem penned in Occitan, the old Romance language of the people of Provence. The name of the owner of the farm in the old poem was Raimon de Castel Roussillon, and there is today a town near Aix called Roussillon. (The French opera Mireille was similarly based on on epic poem written in Occitan). 

The actual time is 800 years ago when Roussillon (The Protector) lived on his estate. But the time-frame runs from Biblical days right up to now. The subject is the battle of the sexes and by extrapolation any other struggle between people that Crimp wishes to comment on. If you paid close attention to the cast list above, you would have noted The Protector and Agnès are the only human beings in the script. All other characters are Angels or their Archivists.

Now to our random preview images, the first of which shows The Protector (Christopher Purves) and his wife, Agnès (Barbara Hannigan):

The Protector with Marie, Agnès's sister (Victoria Simmonds):


The next two images go together:

Has this word been used before in an Opera?

Now we meet the Boy (Bejun Mehta):


An example of the extreme range of time featured in this work:

The audience in the theaters didn't see this:

Marie again in the next shot:


The next two images go together. The statement about "white lines" refers to lines in a parking lot. The tall man with dark hair is Angel 3 (Allan Clayton) :


Well, if you're still with me, you will probably like this opera. If you had given up, I would have suggested you stick with Puccini.

The screenshots suggest how bracing the libretto is. The vocal score and the orchestration are equally challenging. But thanks to excellent music making, directing, and acting, everything works together well. Sound quality, picture quality, and video content are all excellent. I conclude this is a fine title that you will probably like a lot if you are interested in contemporary opera, and this indicates the grade of "B+." If you are a hard-core contemporary opera fan, this might well be an A+ title for you.  

Here's a trailer from Opus Arte:

Update on 2015-01-25 by Henry McFadyen Jr.

This video was the "Critic's Choice" in the May 2014 Opera News at page 65. Matthew Gurewitsch writes a whole page about WoS---he's wary,  but it's obvious that the work is making a big impact on the contemporary opera scene. In the 2014 Annual Classical Music Awards issue, Gramophone (page 41) called this the winner of the Contemporary recording category---in its DVD version. The editor didn't know that it's also out in a superior Blu-ray version! In the December 2014 Gramophone at page 26, Ken Smith made WoS his "Critic's Choice" for the year.