Written on Skin review – spare staging highlights richness of Benjamin's opera

West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge
The Melos Sinfonia’s thrilling concert performance of George Benjamin’s intense, horrifying work was often more dramatic than full productions

In the five years since its premiere at the Aix-en-Provence festival, Written on Skin has travelled widely. In Britain alone, there have been two runs of the original Aix production, at Covent Garden, and in a concert performance at the Barbican in London – all with more or less the same cast. But this concert staging put on by the Melos Sinfonia, conducted by Oliver Zeffman and directed by Jack Furness with a outstanding cast of young, up-and-coming singers, offered a wholly different perspective on George Benjamin’s second stage work. Like all of the best operas, it is dramatically and musically rich enough to reveal more and more facets of itself with every new interpretation.

Furness’s staging of this medieval tale was spare – a few chairs, essential props, and casual modern clothes for the protagonists. The style of Martin Crimp’s libretto, in which characters regularly describe their actions in the third person, and often deliver lines as reported speech, can seem arch and contrived in a full staging, but seems much more involving when the dramatic trappings are minimised.

Bethan Langford as Marie and Angel 2 and Nick Pritchard as John and Angel 3.
Bethan Langford as Marie and Angel 2 and Nick Pritchard as John and Angel 3. Photograph: Nick Rutter

The concert hall presentation also emphasised connections between Written on Skin and Benjamin’s only previous “opera”, Into the Little Hill, in which the packaging is even more spare. The sense of detachment, of keeping the action at arms’ length, may be sharper in the earlier work, but it’s there in Written on Skin, too, despite the intensity and horror of the emotions portrayed.

Hearing the work in concert makes the score itself seem even more miraculous. Zeffman’s impressively lucid conducting and the Melos Sinfonia’s totally assured playing ensured that the rainbow of colours that Benjamin conjures from a large orchestra containing exotica such as glass harmonica, two mandolins and bass viola da gamba, were vividly conveyed.

The West Road Concert Hall perhaps confined some of the biggest climaxes, but the singers coped superbly. Ross Ramgobin was a smouldering Protector, a walking time-bomb; Patrick Terry was the Boy, the artist employed by the Protector to create the illuminated manuscript intended to celebrate his power, with such horrifying results, while the simplicity of the staging allowed the two angels, Bethan Langford and Nick Pritchard, to become a more telling part of the action than they were in the original production. Most thrilling of all, Lauren Fagan’s gleaming, intense performance showed what a extraordinary dramatic creation the character of Agnès is, one of the great operatic heroines of the past 100 years.

Ross Ramgobin as the Protector, Patrick Terry (the Boy) and Lauren Fagan (Agnes).
Ross Ramgobin, Patrick Terry as the Boy and Lauren Fagan in Written on Skin. Photograph: Nick Rutter


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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