First seen at the innovative, fearless Aix-en-Provence festival three summers ago, George Benjamin’s riveting, grisly Written on Skin has arrived in New York. In an age when new operas are met with complaints about either the composer’s lack of intelligent, expressive writing for the voice, or his or her attempts to re-create Puccini, or complaints about a weak libretto or situations that ramble when they should be aiming for conciseness, Written on Skin startles with its rock-solid, laser-like focus on wedding sounds and text, drama and time. If the skeptic expects either blandness or effects for their own sake, he waits in vain. This is 95 minutes of jaw-dropping musical theater, with sounds as unusual as they are correct for the situation – plucked strings and bongo drums used not for wit but for tension, cow bells and a glass harmonica that are visceral, dissonant squeals from the high strings that jab at the solar plexus, high woodwinds that pierce and comment like the best of Varèse, and periods of lyrical loveliness – a solo violin and viola de gamba - that fit perfectly within the drama’s framework. The whole opera seems haunted.

Barbara Hannigan (Agnès) and Tim Mead (Boy) © Richard Termine
Barbara Hannigan (Agnès) and Tim Mead (Boy)
© Richard Termine

Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that in a way, it defines opera – the emotions are so strong that the singing seems a natural result: heightened speech. And Benjamin makes certain that the orchestra will never drowns the text. The story is based on a 13th century Provencal ballad. Martin Crimp is the librettist (he and Benjamin collaborated on an opera in 2006 as well; I’ve not heard it). The characters converse normally most of the time and exude an uncomfortable calm, with the orchestra ebbing and flowing above and below the voices. Sometimes they refer to themselves in the third person, sometimes they offer stage directions. On the surface we are dealing with a love triangle: a domineering, cruel wealthy man called the Protector, his illiterate wife, Agnès, whom he treats like chattel (“Her obedient body is my property!”), and a young boy – an artist/scribe – whom the Protector hires to “illuminate” his great deeds on vellum. Agnès is suspicious and curious and after interactions with the Boy, she seduces him. The Boy wishes to conceal the truth from the Protector but Agnès, emotionally, intellectually and sensually awakened, and ready – at last – to turn away from the Protector, makes certain that he finds out. And when he does, he murders the Boy, cuts out his heart, cooks it and forces Agnès to eat it. Rather than being disgusted by it, Agnès revels in it and tells the Protector that she wants the taste of the Boy to be the last thing she recalls. Then she commits suicide.

Barbara Hannigan (Agnès) and Christopher Purves (The Protector) © Richard Termine
Barbara Hannigan (Agnès) and Christopher Purves (The Protector)
© Richard Termine

The production is the same as was seen at Aix. The sets by Vicki Mortimer and direction by Katie Mitchell are all of a piece: rooms are side-by-side and atop one another; they represent the present time and Middle Ages, respectively. In the 15 short scenes, there are also three “Angels” from the present who comment on the action, help to dress the characters and offer props from a sterile office environment. Four other silent characters walk in slow motion. The story itself, is told on simple, grey-walled sets to the (audience’s) right of the two-storey present-day office, implying the Middle Ages, with a simple table and chairs, and a cluster of trees outside. The Boy is both an Angel in the present and The Boy in the story; the two narratives do not clash and the audience is not confused. It isn’t difficult to gain entry into this world. We are told at the start by the Angels to forget the modern world – the concrete parking lots, the airports, etc. We know this is a narrative. We also realize that the thing that binds the present with the past is violence.

Christopher Purves (The Protector) and Barbara Hannigan (Agnès) © Richard Termine
Christopher Purves (The Protector) and Barbara Hannigan (Agnès)
© Richard Termine

The singing and acting are all one could hope for, with two of the three main characters re-creating their roles from the première. Christopher Purves’ expressive baritone delves monstrously into the Protector’s selfish, cruel psyche, sometimes snarling, sometimes whispering, and he menaces as he moves. Barbara Hannigan is unique in today’s world – a high coloratura with the intensity of Natalie Dessay and Teresa Stratas, with a smoldering sexuality that is almost tangible, almost upsetting. Singing, for the most part, without vibrato, she invokes the Middle Ages; letting go with a long-held fortissimo high C that closes the opera’s second part, she brings anguish into the present. In a brilliant touch on Benjamin’s part, the Boy (and Angel) is sung by a countertenor, the otherworldy sound ideal for the part. Tim Mead brings a more focused sound to the role than did Bejun Mehta in the video of this opera from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and he reacts more sensually to Agnès. His confusion, his obsessions and his tragic end are the stuff of tragedy.

Victoria Simmonds, Robert Murray, Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves, Tim Mead © Richard Termine
Victoria Simmonds, Robert Murray, Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves, Tim Mead
© Richard Termine

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra, who premiered the work too, is spectacular. Led here by Alan Gilbert, they play at a whisper for long stretches with Benjamin’s odd but right-on combination of instruments and rhythms and they startle in the outbursts.

I’ve never heard an audience explode with such positive enthusiasm for a contemporary work before – the wild reaction is normally kept in reserve for specific singers in specific roles. But Written on Skin is special – it is most assuredly the finest opera composed and presented in this century so far, and may be the masterpiece of the past 50 years.