Love triangles which end in the grisly death of one or more of the protagonists have been standard material for opera since time immemorial. But that’s about the only thing about George Benjamin’s Written on Skin which is purely conventional: everything else is a conscious – and broadly successful – attempt to create something different from everyday operatic fare.

Christopher Purves (The Protector), Barbara Hannigan (Agnès) © ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
Christopher Purves (The Protector), Barbara Hannigan (Agnès)
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey

Of the operas written in recent years, all too many are staged once by whoever commissioned them, after wish they languish. Written on Skin is a notable exception, having travelled round the world since its 2012 première and now receiving its first revival at the Royal Opera. For those of us who saw it first time round, this is a chance to assess whether it can become an enduring part of the repertoire. For those who didn’t, it’s a chance to drink in a strong dose of operatic innovation and see if it’s to their taste.

Benjamin’s score is impressive in many ways, the most significant of which is the composer's mastery of timbre. He uses many different combinations of instruments, including some unusual ones like bass viola da gamba and glass harmonica: the life of the whole opera comes from the way the soundscape is constantly shifting with the different timbres that are created. Both as composer and conductor, Benjamin is meticulous in his attention to balance between singers and orchestra: there is always space in which you can hear the singers at their best.

Christopher Purves (the Protector), Iestyn Davies (the Boy), Barbara Hannigan (Agnès) © ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
Christopher Purves (the Protector), Iestyn Davies (the Boy), Barbara Hannigan (Agnès)
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
And these are exceptional singers. Barbara Hannigan (who shares this short run with Georgia Jarman) has been the prime performer of Agnès since Written on Skin’s première and she inhabits the role completely – it’s a textbook demonstration of how a soprano can both physically throw herself around on stage and throw her voice at a role. When Hannigan ratchets up the tension levels, everyone in the house knows it; when she hits and develops a high note, she generates excitement, motion and extraordinary beauty. In this revival, the long-held highs are matched by those of Iestyn Davies as the Boy, who produces just as much beauty, purity and sheer volume. A solid base is provided by Christopher Purves as the violent, overbearing Protector; Purves’ voice occasionally turned to an unpleasant rasp, but one that wasn’t out of keeping with his character’s nature. All three principals, with good quality support from Mark Padmore and Victoria Simmonds, were able to bring across the work’s oppressive atmosphere and sexual tension in the strongest possible way.

To set against these impressive strengths, I have three principal criticisms, the first of which first concerns the opera’s framing device. Written on Skin’s basic narrative is strong and timeless; it happens to be set in a the home of a medieval lord, which works fine. The narrative is framed, however, by a set of three “modern angels” (who double as characters in the story) and, in Katie Mitchell’s production, by four silent “archivists”. The angels and archivists live in a modern building that surrounds the medieval scenery, doll’s house-style; the concept is that the angels are both manipulating events and commenting on them. For me, this device added nothing to the underlying narrative. I was similarly unimpressed by librettist Martin Crimp’s constant use of the characters singing about themselves in the third person. These two features are certainly distinctive; interviews with composer and librettist indicate that they think they are highly important; in my case, both served merely to irritate.

© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
My third criticism concerns the overall pace of the score. Benjamin provides exceptional levels of variation in timbre and dynamics – his ability to hit a climax hard at critical moments in the drama is reminiscent of Wozzeck, an opera with which he is very familiar. But I felt very little change in pace or underlying mood in an opera that lasts a little over 90 minutes. That’s a long time in which to maintain consistently high levels of tension: the stellar cast in this production was just about able to achieve it; I suspect that lesser houses might struggle.

In spite of these cavils, if you want opera that’s extreme, dramatic and genuinely distinct from any of the works of yesteryear, Written on Skin remains a good option, particularly at the quality of performance on display last night.

Barbara Hannigan as Agnès, Iestyn Davies as the Boy © ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
Barbara Hannigan as Agnès, Iestyn Davies as the Boy
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey