Contemporary operas that garner both audience and critical acclaim used to be the rarest of beasts, though recent works by Thomas Adès, Missy Mazzoli, Kaija Saariaho and several others have bucked the trend. Written on Skin, by composer George Benjamin and playwright Martin Crimp, won a roaring ovation at its 2012 Aix-en-Provence premiere, and has gone from strength to strength in subsequent revivals.
The story is an old and grisly one: Cuckolded husband murders wife’s lover, cooks his heart and feeds it to his spouse. Benjamin and Crimp add several frames: The lover is also one of three angels witnessing this and larger calamities with “cold fascination,” as well as a scribe whose illuminated manuscript depicts and triggers events. The titular skin is both his vellum and the flesh of Agnès (her name in Greek means “pure” or “holy”), whose “hunger,” “appetite” and “curiosity,” like Eve’s, upend the world her tyrannical husband reckons “perfect.”
Benjamin’s music can pack a rowdy punch, but works its most potent magic summoning colossal effects with spartan means: the disquieting hiss and prickly staccati that accompany Agnès’s gruesome meal, or the pale cloud of sound underpinning the angel’s closing words of soul-chilling antitheodicy. Barbara Hannigan (Agnès), Christopher Purves (her husband) and Bejun Mehta (the angel/scribe) enunciate beautifully and bring their characters to visceral life; Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s restless, uncanny playing in Benjamin’s Duet for Piano and Orchestra rounds out the superb set.—Marion Lignana RosenbergSee more in Opera and Classical Music