My evening at the Liceu was exquisite. Not just the perfection of the singing and the flawless orchestral accompaniment, but, to my amazement, the music itself was enthralling. With original composer George Benjamin returning to conducting duties for the opera’s debut performance in Spain, I had approached this production of Written on Skin with trepidation. I was determined to give it a respectful hearing, but did not expect to enjoy it, since my acceptance of more modern music tends to peter out after the first decade or two of the 20th century. Therefore, a work by a relentlessly modern composer did not beckon encouragingly. However, like the rest of the audience, I was swept away by the force and the sensuality of the music, as well as the perfect synchronicity with Martin Crimp’s libretto. There was not a moment, throughout the three sections of the work, when the audience indicated anything but total engrossment.
The opera has travelled far and wide since its 2012 premiere at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012, having played at the Tanglewood Festival in Massachusetts, as well as in London, Amsterdam, Vienna, Paris and New York. It is showing at the Teatro Real in Madrid this week and, knowing the reluctance of audiences to embrace starkly modern music, nobody has commissioned it for more than a day or two. I only wish that, as in New York, we had had two or three performances. I would have attended all of them. It is one thing to be awash with admiration and pleasure; it is another to fully understand what we are hearing.
The story, based on a 13th-century tale by the troubadour Guillem de Cabestany, has also appeared in the work of Petrarch and Boccaccio. It tells of the desire of a wealthy man, known as The Protector, to own a book (a prestigious novelty) written on parchment (skin). He employs a young boy, The Boy, to write it. The Protector has a young wife, Agnes, who is intelligent and curious, but in the manner of the times, she is totally illiterate and frustrated by her lack of knowledge. Her curiosity eventually leads to a connection with The Boy who, when her husband finds out, is killed and his heart is fed to his unknowing wife, who promptly kills herself. With a lively and original script, the story is narrated by three angels, who sing with such a sense of logic that we accept what they say as reality.
The original singers, composer and chamber orchestra have presented Written on Skin in various locations, and their cooperation is impeccable. Five singers take on eight roles (the three angels double as characters in the story) and the flow is as smooth as silk as they transition from one role to another. They are all excellent actors. Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, as Agnes, had a sublime and sensuous voice that rang out and perfectly expressed her needs and sense of frustration. Tim Mead’s countertenor was crystalline and full of emotion, while the Protector and cuckolded husband, sung by baritone Christopher Purves, vented his pride and complex sexual emotions in a forceful but controlled manner. The two other angels, mezzos Victoria Simmonds and Robert Murray, had smaller roles to fill, but did so impeccably. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra performed this strange and complex music with total assuredness and in perfect balance with the singers.
The Liceu was mostly full, much more so than might have been expected, given that modern opera is not hugely popular, and that Barcelona FC hosted an important Champions League game against British rivals Arsenal on the same night. Don’t laugh: football is a tough competitor! Presumably for financial reasons, this was an acted concert performance, although nothing significant seemed to be missing. In fact, having to use one’s own imagination as an audience member proved to be rather exciting.
George Benjamin has already been commissioned to work on future operas and, to my great surprise, I can’t wait to hear them. Please, Liceu, get in line now and book whatever he is working on. I think it is safe to say that, after this performance and the rousing applause at the end, you will have a willing audience in attendance.
The next Liceu production takes us back to familiar territory. With Plácido Domingo returning in the title role, Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra opens on April 12th and runs until April 29th.