George Benjamin's new opera Written On Skin brooks no half-measures on paper. A first class cast with one of the most independently-minded directors in the UK made this austere work one of the hits of the Aix Festival last year. I, for one, was delighted to get the opportunity to see the production on stage* as I had watched part of the broadcast from Aix online which felt as if it did the split level, multiple-focus staging few favours, not to mention the inevitably poor acoustic reproduction of my stereo hardware. Here's the trailer for the Royal Opera's production (on the main stage):
The apparently straightforward plot involves a proud, proprietorial man hiring a boy to write a book as a hagiograph, only to cause sexual and psychological emancipation in both the homeowner and his young wife, ending in tragedy. Yet the production gives the impression that something else is at work: around the staging area of the plot is a complex of rooms that suggest the manipulative hand of higher beings, angels (as they are actually referred to) perhaps, gods or something more prosaic and familiar to us today - politicians or scientists.
Certainly the discussions, morals and behaviour of the characters is based upon an older, conservative moral code that one might reasonably refer to as religious. One friend suggested the dress is middle eastern. Another saw the group as rural 19th century Russian and I felt the setup might have been rural American Lutheran.
The point here is that the truth is just out of reach. Everything about the staging, the design, even the story - rendered in a comic-book, speech-bubble form by the characters (e.g. the man sings '... said the man,') - leaves the sensibility of the production floating, standing off itself.
The result is to concentrate the attention on the aesthetic, the music and the singing, the deliberate movement of the cast. Benjamin's music is carefully orchestrated, the sustained strata of sonorities not a blanket but a series of diaphanous veils through which the voices don't have to force. The orchestra colour consequently comes from the timbres of individual instruments rather than harmonic hues. Similarly the voices of the cast experiment with parlando extremities (which the spare orchestration allows at a simple dynamic level). The equivalence of style and substance is confirmed by the use of a staircase in the final act reminiscent of one of the key works of the aesthetic movement, Burne-Jones' The Golden Stairs (right).
By the end of the opera, I was unsure whether I was watching genuinely metaphysical action or a satire; whether the principal plot was in the 13th century past of Martin Crimp's source text or in a dystopian future beyond the angels' 'present'. However the emotional trajectory and deliberate action of all on stage delivers a strong impression that is worth the considerable debate that happened in Bow Street afterwards.
*I saw the dress rehearsal