Written on Skin review – Hannigan is spellbinding in parable of beauty and violence

Royal Opera House, London
Soprano Barbara Hannigan revisits the role created for her in George Benjamin’s tale of sexual jealousy and artistic revelation, interpreted forensically by Katie Mitchell

Major new operas have a habit of revealing their secrets over time. Written on Skin, George Benjamin’s chilling parable about the transformative potential of art, is receiving its first revival at Covent Garden since its UK premiere in 2013. Though Martin Crimp’s text, in which the protagonists narrate their own stories in the third person, can seem mannered after repeated hearings, deepening familiarity with Benjamin’s score increases one’s awareness of its beauty, its violence and the forensic yet immediate way in which it probes psychological extremes.

The double-casting of one role and two substantial changes elsewhere, meanwhile, remind us of the work’s growing attraction for new interpreters. Barbara Hannigan, for whom Agnès was written, was spellbinding on opening night, though Georgia Jarman takes over later in the run. Iestyn Davies, sounding glorious, makes the Boy a more overtly roguish, albeit less otherworldly figure than Bejun Mehta, who created him. Mark Padmore replaces Allan Clayton as the sinister male angel. Victoria Simmonds as his female counterpart, and Christopher Purves as the sexually troubled Protector, remain exceptional in the roles they played four years ago. Benjamin himself conducts.

Iestyn Davies as the Boy) and Ben Clifford (Angel Archivist) in Written on Skin.
Cold meddling … Iestyn Davies as the Boy) and Ben Clifford (Angel Archivist). Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Katie Mitchell’s production, however, arouses more mixed feelings. The angels, coldly meddling in worldly affairs, are reimagined as archivists trying to rationalise historical brutality, the emotional significance of which eludes them. But Mitchell’s busy use of a split-level, multiple-room set can be distracting, most notably in the climactic final encounter between the Protector and Agnès, weakening its impact as a result.

Watch the trailer for Written on Skin


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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