ne of the most extraordinary operas of the 21st century is playing at Opera Philadelphia. Our journey from New York to see George Benjamin and Martin Crimp’s Written on Skin — the title refers to the parchment on which medieval manuscripts were illuminated — was worth every yard.
The plot, based on the 13th-century vida of troubadour Guillem de Cabestany, begins with a chorus of angels — here costumed in black and pacing with stage-manager airs, futuristic electronic tablets in hand — who turn time back to the medieval period. We meet a wealthy, violent landowner, the Protector, and his wife, Agnès. The Protector, who calls Agnès his “property” (already the opera’s critical stance on traditional gender roles is clear), commissions an artist known simply as the Boy to prepare an illuminated manuscript based on the life of the Protector’s family. But the commission requires an almost hagiographical slant: he asks the Boy to depict himself and his family in paradise and his enemies in hell.
gnès asks the Boy to portray a woman “who said that she couldn’t sleep / who said that her heart split and shook / at the sight of a Boy.” When he brings her the finished product, clearly depicting her tangled up in a bedsheet, they discuss the picture’s verisimilitude until she seduces him. The Boy lies when the Protector confronts him about his suspicions, but Agnès demands that the Boy invent an image that will shatter her husband’s delusions of grandeur: “While the dead heap up in the meadow / while human beings burn in the marketplace, / make a new page: / Push our love into that man’s eye / like a hot needle.” After the Boy confirms the truth through text and images, the Protector murders him and feeds his heart to Agnès, who remains defiant to the end.
The piece is a terrific feat of harmony and orchestration. The singers are given sonic space to soar above the orchestra’s playing, most of which does not double the vocal lines. Each sentence is perfectly clear, even when multiple characters are singing different lines of text. Opera singing in English can often sound muddled because our language, with its abundance of diphthongs and schwa vowels, does not lend itself naturally to sustained notes. For this reason, even Anglophone listeners hearing a piece in their own language often find it helpful to read supertitles at the opera house. But in this production, we found ourselves in the unusual situation of not needing the titles at all.
enjamin’s score employs adventurous and intelligent orchestration choices, including a bass viol, a glass harmonica, and a typewriter. The music sounds very contemporary, but at no point is it gimmicky, nor does it rely on the screechiness or atmospheric trances so often associated with contemporary classical music.
Soprano Lauren Snouffer gave an outstandingly sensuous performance, luxuriating in every note she sang. Anthony Ross Constanzo, a countertenor with rare vocal power and clarity, perfectly combined innocence and defiance in the role of the Boy. Baritone Mark Stone was by turns menacing and vulnerable as the Protector, but his performance occasionally seemed a bit more effortful than those of his co-stars.
e were stunned by the look of this production as much as by the music. The set consists primarily of a rotating black cube that looks part Kaaba, part Fifth Avenue Apple Store, and each side of which unfolds to reveal a different space. The scenes evoke medieval triptych altarpieces, and the set and costumes (both designed by Tom Rogers) recall the rich palette of red, blue, and green often found in medieval art. Some of the props, on the other hand, could be out of science fiction. The show avoids the challenge of showing intricately detailed manuscripts on stage by portraying them as glowing tablets, as if each was an entire book made out of light. This clever effect helps to bridge the gap between the main narrative and the futuristic frame, and quite literally enacts the age-old metaphor of a book as a lamp overcoming moral and intellectual darkness.
In a twist on conventional storytelling, the characters narrate their own parts in third person, even interrupting their dialogue with attributions like “Agnès said.” This reinforces the fact that the narrative exists within the frame of the story told by the angels. Over and over we are reminded of the multiple narrative layers: the story is being written into existence just as the Boy is illustrating the written word before our eyes, “inventing” (in the classical sense of discovering as well as creating) the story. At its heart, the opera is about the power of words and images to create and recreate reality in the minds of the audience.
his is also a story in which female desire cannot be bound by the patriarchal forces trying to contain it. The staging effectively reflects this, as Agnès strikes poses that clearly assert her dominance over the younger man. Although it premiered in 2012 in Aix-en-Provence (Benjamin and Crimp began discussing it in 2008), it could easily have been written a few months ago, so timely are its implicit statements on feminism, gender roles, and the ways in which powerful men try to control women’s bodies.
Written on Skin is playing in an all-too-short run. At the time of this writing, only two more performances are scheduled, and we are planning to see it again. Such a smart, virtuosic production of an opera like this is to be treasured, much as the costly and beautiful books of the middle ages were precious objects that evoked wonder and respect. If you are anywhere near Philadelphia, go.
Opera Philadelphia’s production of Written on Skin continues at the Academy of Music (Broad and Locust Streets, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through February 18.
(Illustrations by Andrew Summers.)