George Benjamin’s Written on Skin caused a stir at its first performance in Aix-en-Provence in 2012, and was hailed as one of the defining works of the 21st century when it transferred to Covent Garden the following year. This semi-staged performance – with Benjamin conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (MCO) and the cast that gave last year’s New York stage premiere – marked its second London outing. I only saw the Aix and Covent Garden telecasts, so this was my first experience of it live.
Erotic yet brutal, it forms an ambiguous meditation on the transformative power of art. The creation of an illuminated manuscript leads to adultery, murder and eventual cannibalism when Agnès, the unhappy wife of the Protector who commissions it, begins an affair with the Boy who paints it. Angelic figures, motivated by what they call “a cold fascination with human disaster”, propel the narrative forward and are incarnated within it. Shorn of Katie Mitchell’s original staging, which turned the Angels into archaelogists reimagining the past, the sense of metaphysical scrutiny and intervention becomes deeply troubling. You’re also more conscious of the occasionally mannered quality of Martin Crimp’s libretto, in which the protagonists describe themselves in the third person, as if narrating the stories of their own lives.
The score is masterful in its tension and compression, its spareness of detail, both vocal and instrumental, speaking volumes. The MCO played it with an almost queasy beauty, and the singing was flawless. Christopher Purves and Barbara Hannigan, who also created the roles of the Protector and Agnès, are remarkable vocal actors, and their interpretations intensify with time. Tim Mead captured the Boy’s androgynous sexuality with astonishing beauty, while Victoria Simmonds and Robert Murray were wonderfully enigmatic as his rumour-mongering fellow angels.