That’s what the TSO did on Saturday night at Roy Thomson Hall. The opera was Written on Skin, by the London-based composer George Benjamin. And the results were quite impressive, in their own way.
How to describe Written on Skin? To begin, it proudly aligns itself with a certain kind of English artistic sensibility. The piece has an “aristocratic” bearing: it’s refined, high-minded and impeccably crafted.
The libretto, by Martin Crimp, could be the script for a Peter Greenaway film –something like The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, with elements of The Pillow Book thrown in for good measure.
Working from several medieval sources, Crimp created an intense little world populated by a jealous and powerful husband called the Protector, his repressed wife Agnès, and three angels who take human form. One of the angels appears as the Boy, an illustrator commissioned by the Protector to create a book of the Protector’s glorious exploits. A love-triangle ensues when Agnès becomes fascinated by the Boy.
Musically, Written on Skin is an admirable example of a certain English response to modernism. Yes, there are some loud and garish “Wozzeck” moments in the piece. But mostly it embraces the kinder, gentler kind of atonality that can be heard in the music of such English composers as Harrison Birtwistle or Thomas Adès – or even reaching back to Benjamin Britten.
Here, Benjamin uses the orchestra to create a delicate, subtly hued background, with the vocal lines clearly foregrounded. And within this framework, the composer is inventive, augmenting his orchestra with mandolins, a viola da gamba and a very eerie glass harmonica.
The TSO’s performance effectively captured the nuances of the score. No doubt, this was largely due to the presence of Benjamin on the podium. (He’s a highly skilled conductor.) But it also helped that two of the principal roles – the Protector and Agnès – were performed by the same singers who premiered the piece in Aix-en-Provence in 2012, and also sang in the Covent Garden production the following year: baritone Christopher Purves and soprano Barbara Hannigan.
Both sang with a natural fluidity and a thorough commitment to their roles. Purves was a dark, menacing presence – yet not without human weaknesses. The Toronto-educated Hannigan was at first sweet-voiced and understated, but as events unfolded and passions rose, she blossomed in strength and intensity.
As the Boy, countertenor Bernhard Landauer, came to Toronto fresh from singing the role at Stockholm’s Royal opera earlier this year. His gently soaring voice captured the otherworldly innocence of his character. And capably rounding out the cast were mezzo Krisztina Szabó and tenor Isaiah Bell, as two angels incarnated as a rather strange married couple.
The TSO can count its concert production of Written on Skin a complete success. But what of the opera itself? I’ve already used such adjectives as “impressive,” “inventive,” and “admirable.” – and the piece is all of these things. However, such measured praise is intended to convey respect, not over-the-moon enthusiasm.
Some critics have suggested that Written on Skin will win a place for itself in the operatic repertoire. I beg to differ. My prediction is that it will receive a few more productions, here and there. Then, in a few years, the operatic world will collectively decide that it has “done” the piece, and will move on to other novelties.
For all its virtues, Written on Skin is also an arcane and rarefied work of art. New-music connoisseurs may think it’s the bee’s knees – and Benjamin might get a knighthood out of it – but it won’t win the kind of broad popularity necessary to become a repertoire item.
© Colin Eatock 2015