Written on Skin tells an old, oft-retold story. A woman cheats on her husband. Her husband kills the lover. The woman kills herself. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, this is less a tragedy than a triumphant sexual awakening. The woman, Agnès (she insists on her name, while the men remain anonymous), is intelligent and curious. Though her husband (“The Protector”) refers to her as his property, she seeks the company of The Boy he has hired to write and illuminate the book of The Protector’s life. The Boy writes on skin – the skin of the book’s pages, and the skin of Agnès’ body. When he, too, tries to protect her by lying about their affair, she accuses him of only protecting himself. She challenges him to defiantly tell her husband everything. Even The Protector’s gruesome revenge (he forces her to eat The Boy’s heart) is symbolic of Agnès’ newfound freedom; she declares as she dies that “nothing… will ever take the taste of that Boy’s heart out of my mouth”.

Anthony Roth Costanzo (The Boy) and Lauren Snouffer (Agnès) © Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia
Anthony Roth Costanzo (The Boy) and Lauren Snouffer (Agnès)
© Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia

In Opera Philadelphia’s new production by director Will Kerley, angels (three narrators and a group of supernumeraries) act as efficient stage managers. They stride about the stage purposefully in all-black outfits and bleached-blond hair, tapping at their tablets. They open up designer Tom Rogers’ grey box of a set to reveal the needed spaces: the splendid gold and blue entrance to The Protector’s house, a spiral staircase into The Boy’s workroom, and a forest emerging from manuscript illustrations. They also ensure the opera’s gruesome end, catching The Boy as he runs from The Protector and participating in his murder. In this staging, The Boy’s books (“illuminated page[s]”) are angelic objects – literally illuminated from within through magic or technology, a miracle in this medieval world.

Crimp's libretto defies time and logic. Angels narrate from the present, and even their in-story personas (The Boy, Agnès’ sister Marie, and her husband John) reveal their knowledge of the future. They sing of concrete, shopping malls, airplanes. The words and music keep up an aggressive conversational pace, with overlapping lines and few monodies. The result is driven and concise, without a trace of the compositional self-indulgence that dulls too many operas (old and new). Crimp’s words switch between first- and third-person: “says The Protector,” “explains The Boy,” and “says The Woman” interrupt those characters’ lines. This distancing technique gives the audience the angels’ own “cold fascination with human disaster” and counterbalances the frenzy of the score. While deliberate, the forced aloofness is also frustrating; it withholds the cathartic angst of operatic melodrama.

Anthony Roth Costanzo (The Boy) and Mark Stone (The Protector) © Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia
Anthony Roth Costanzo (The Boy) and Mark Stone (The Protector)
© Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Benjamin’s music is a carefully controlled racket – noisy and full of grating and screeching, without descending into chaos. Benjamin has a gift for making sounds suit the drama. Percussive thumping over a brassy din punctuates the murder of The Boy. The eerie tones of the solo glass harmonica (masterfully played by Friedrich Kern) mark the awful interval between when Agnès eats her lover’s heart and when she jumps out the window. Pairs of pebbles, a typewriter and sets of tabla (South Asian tuned hand drums) contribute to the unusual instrumentation. Conductor Corrado Rovaris kept the orchestra’s playing crisp and energized, building tension with stretches of growing speed and volume that come to sudden, crashing halts.

The opera has just five singing roles and Opera Philadelphia found excellent singers for all. Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó (Marie/ Second Angel) and tenor Alasdair Kent (John/ Third Angel) lent their parts edgy tone and a subtle air of menace. The solid voice of baritone Mark Stone’s Protector contained a pleasant warmth at odds with his character’s stern demeanor. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo (Boy/ First Angel) cut the air with his first, unnerving note. He gave his sound cottony softness for intimate moments, but brought back its thrilling steel for dramatic crises. His variety of vocal textures was matched by soprano Lauren Snouffer as Agnès. She showed off both piercing, straight-tone singing and full, ringing sounds. Chesty speech-song and notes that broke midway into yells added to her expressive power.

Anthony Roth Costanzo (The Boy) and Mark Stone (The Protector) © Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia
Anthony Roth Costanzo (The Boy) and Mark Stone (The Protector)
© Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia

The success of contemporary opera depends on not just commissioning new works, but reviving the good ones and bringing them to new audiences. On both counts, Opera Philadelphia deserves applause. Written on Skin is part of a pattern of exciting, modern programming. Let’s hope more companies around the country follow suit. Written on Skin deserves more productions – not as the token 21st-century piece in a company’s season, but as part of a diverse, living canon of contemporary operas.

****1