Review: Written on Skin, Royal Opera House ‘Brooding, Powerful’

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It is such a thrill when a new opera gets everything right. And Written on Skin from Martin Crimp and George Benjamin, is brooding, powerful and terrific. I missed its debut back in 2013 when it premiered at the Royal Opera House so how lucky for me that this, its revival at the ROH, has been so quick.

And given its themes of feminism, female sexuality and fragile masculinity, Katie Mitchell is a sublime choice as Director. For it’s the tragedy of the woman, Agnes (Barbara Hannigan), that she places front and centre here. For Agnes is a woman who was forced to marry the Protector (Christopher Purves) as a child bride, and who now exists in the shadow of her husband, in a life without love or respect. In possibly a marriage that has never been consummated. Only for her heart and her passions to be opened and awakened by the arrival of an Angel (Iestyn Davies) who has descended from the heavens in the guise of a Boy and then employed by the Protector in a vanity exercise of writing him a book – an item so precious that some of it can only be written on skin.

There is such nuance and complexity in this story and its characters – central and supporting – which is welcome. Much credit for that goes to Martin Crimp’s text, which does have a clever sense of the unexpected to it. But Katie Mitchell gives these developments such space, allows the characters to breathe, to pause, enabling reflection and agonising repression of emotions.

But what really sets this opera apart is its blend of the modern and the traditional.

Martin Crimp may have set his production ‘800 years ago,’ but what he has actually done is placed us in the present day reflecting back 800 years. And that is very clever. And also allows for some terrific phrases in the libretto, such as the opening that sets up the throwback: ‘Erase the Saturday car-park from the market place. Fade out the living, snap the dead back to life.’ And then at its closing, when the drama and its events have unfolded, ‘the white lines of the Saturday car park cover the heaped-up dead.’

So true. What small crimes lay hidden and unknown beneath our feet.

But this mix is also captured by Katie Mitchell and Designer Vicki Mortimer in a split-level set where one room, a sparse and distressed farmhouse, is set in the past, and the other rooms are clinical modern offices with sleek minimalist tables and rails. And, eventually emerging to the side, these are accompanied by a spiral stairway to heaven.

In fact, so innovative and emotional is Katie Mitchell’s touch here that I did find myself wondering whether I would have loved the opera as much if the staging had been different. Impossible to know for sure, I guess, but all key elements to this production are excellent, from the text to the direction, from the performances to the score.

The score comes from George Benjamin, who is also conducting the orchestra each night in this run, and, my, his work is sublime. So clever in its construction, there are moments during this intense drama when the musical touch is so light, with only solo instruments. Such spellbinding restraint. Only then it will have moments of spiralling emotional bursts of the full orchestra at all the right points.

Those who love opera will, no doubt, appreciate the technical excellence here. And there is much of it on show. Yet there is also much here to draw in new audiences too for this isn’t an intimidating, obscure opera where the melodrama is predictable and overbearing, but one which is unusual and delicately, perfectly balanced.

Royal Opera House, London to January 30, 2017.

All production images © ROH/Stephen Cummiskey.

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