Six years after its première in Aix-en-Provence, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin is already a modern classic. This is in large part thanks to the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, who gave the first performance and has become an enthusiastic advocate. With a semi-staged production, directed by Benjamin Davis, the orchestra has also been bringing the piece to concert hall audiences. This week, the MCO finally gave the work its debut outings in Hamburg and Berlin, under the watchful eye and careful baton of the composer.

Georgia Jarman
© Adam Janisch

The performance in Berlin's Philharmonie was a showcase for this vibrant and enthusiastic orchestra, as well as a chance to hear different singers to take the leads, stepping into the shoes of Barbara Hannigan and Christopher Purves, who memorably created the parts of Agnès and the Protector. Here, Georgia Jarman and Evan Hughes took the roles of the curious woman and her controlling husband, who are bewitched by the powers of the mysterious Boy – an  “illuminator” who illustrates manuscripts of extraordinary beauty – before the Protector turns on the Boy and kills him out of jealousy, serving up his heart to his wife.

Hannigan’s embodiment of the role of Agnès was masterful, making her a tough act to follow, but Jarman held her own, growing into the role over the opera’s 90 minutes. She understood the character’s delicacy and vulnerability as she falls under the boy’s spell, and her self-destructive stubbornness as she begs The Boy to make their love known. With her light mid-range, she gave much-needed clarity and diction to Martin Crimp’s concise and poetic text, but also displayed stunning power in her higher register.

It was also an admirable Philharmonie debut for young baritone Hughes, who brought a snarling darkness to the role of The Protector, although his characterisation was that of a straightforward “bad guy,” rather than of an emasculated patriarch losing his grip on his household. Returning to the role he created in Aix, Bejun Mehta turned a masterful performance as The Boy: unearthly, alluring and with silky tone. His sensual duet with Agnès was the high point of the opera, with their aching intertwining vocal lines providing moments of hair-raising beauty.

George Benjamin conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra
© Adam Janisch

What was really striking about this concert performance was Benjamin’s masterful orchestral writing. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra were not just well drilled and exact in their realisation of the work, but revelled in the beguiling textures and timbres of the piece. The ensemble gave incredible depth to Benjamin’s expansive harmonic palette, and a lightness of touch to the interludes, in which the work’s unusual instrumentation (incorporating viola da gamba, mandolins and glass harmonica) creates a fantastic and enchanting atmosphere.

At the helm of the orchestra, George Benjamin was the very image of control and restraint, making small precise movements to elicit the best from the ensemble. That is, until the work’s climax, where the undercurrent of violence that has been bubbling away beneath the surface for most of the piece explodes into a searing orchestral tutti. Here, the release of tension was visible as Benjamin grasped for more power from the orchestra, before composing himself for the work’s denouement: a devoured heart; a woman’s suicide; the haunting pizzicato strings and muted brass of the work’s final bars.