There is no doubt that George Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin is a modern masterpiece. Since its 2012 première at Aix-en-Provence, it has conquered the world. Shorn of Katie Mitchell’s production and presented on the Barbican Hall’s stage with only the occasional prop, it came across with even greater intensity. Where the eye had often been drawn to different rooms of Vicki Mortimer’s two-tier set, here the craftmanship of Benjamin’s sensuous score itself was the focus, noticeably the outstanding playing of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under the composer’s watchful gaze.

George Benjamin © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
George Benjamin
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real
The subject of Written on Skin is a book – an illuminated manuscript created by The Boy, commissioned by a rich landowner, The Protector, to celebrate his achievements. Based on a 12th-century Old Provençal legend by the troubadour Guillem de Cabestany, the plot centres on the secret love that blossoms between The Boy and Agnès, The Protector’s wife. When Agnès, asserting her growing independence, demands The Boy celebrates their passion, he does so not in pictures, but in words. When the cruel Protector reads the text and discovers their affair, he kills The Boy and forces his wife to eat his heart. Defiantly declaring that nothing will remove the sweet, salty taste from her mouth, she continues to devour it, before leaping to her death. It’s a gripping story, all the more so in Martin Crimp’s evocative text. Surtitles were barely necessary, but it did allow the audience to revel in the poetic beauty of Crimp’s libretto. Even the slightly arch device of characters describing themselves in the third person grated less than before.
Barbara Hannigan (Agnès) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Barbara Hannigan (Agnès)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Barbara Hannigan and Christopher Purves are indelibly associated with their roles as Agnès and The Protector. Hannigan’s dramatic commitment and fearless soprano was incredible; she bends notes so seductively that it wasn’t just Tim Mead’s Boy who fell under her spell. Stabbing an ivory finger to the skies and demanding that the Boy makes her Protector “cry blood”, her performance thrilled to the core. Purves is the complete vocal actor. Every spat syllable hit its mark, exhaling the text as naturally as breathing. He crumpled as he read aloud the adulturous confession, before plotting his bloody revenge.

Tim Mead’s honeyed countertenor beguiled as The Boy/Angel, caressing the vocal line gorgeously. The erotic encounter between Boy and Agnès – Mead and Hannigan both flame-haired – had incendiary danger. Victoria Simmonds, returning to the roles of Angel and Marie (Agnès’ sister), sang passionately, particularly in her would-be seduction of The Boy, while Robert Murray’s pleasing tenor impressed as John/Angel 3.

Tim Mead (The Boy) and Christopher Purves (The Protector) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Tim Mead (The Boy) and Christopher Purves (The Protector)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Having seen Written on Skin at Covent Garden, with three of the same protagonists, it was the orchestral score which provided the greatest revelation here. Released from the pit, the panoply of instruments Benjamin requires is dazzling: gurgling contrabass clarinet, ethereal glass harmonica (backed by a bass viola da gamba), mandolins. The percussion department, arrayed either side of the orchestra, boasted maracas, pebbles, sleighbells, steel drum and cowbell among its number. Yet Benjamin’s taut, smouldering score is anything but congested; there are moments of tremendous power, but for the most part the orchestral writing is delicate and precise. With the composer himself conducting, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra gave a virtuosic performance. The opera’s 90 minutes whistled past, a searing blur of earthly passion and celestial stillness. May we have the opportunity to see it once again very soon.