In George Benjamin’s Written on Skin The Man, The Protector, is described as “addicted to purity and violence”. One could perhaps say the same about the score. Seeing it presented in a minimally staged version at Roy Thomson Hall last night perhaps emphasised those aspects compared to watching a fully staged version (review of Katie Mitchell’s production at the ROH here). Being able to see the conductor and orchestra made the combination of a traditional orchestra with older instruments; viola da gamba, glass harmonica etc (and lots of percussion) more obvious. The music can be very violent but it can also be incredibly quiet and it’s a measure of Benjamin’s skill as a conductor that through these extreme changes of dynamics he rarely, if ever, covered his singers.
The lack of staging also served to focus attention on Martin Crimp’s brilliant and somewhat enigmatic libretto. The use of third person narration; “The Boy did this, said The Boy”, seemed to emphasisze the fact that we are watching a “story”. The absence of sets, lights and costumes though did greatly diminish two things; the appalling violence of the piece and the sense of difference between The Protector and his wife Agnès; humans fixed in space and the 13th century, and the three angels; free to move between two worlds with a property of external agency – both actors in the drama and puppetmasters. Within the limitations of a symphony stage artistic advisor Dan Ayling did a very credible job of displaying the relatiinships between the characters.
The singing and acting was exceptional. Christopher Purves, as The Protector, and Barbara Hannigan, as Agnès, have played their parts in, I think, every production of the work so far and have truly made them their own. Purves is chilling as the terrifyingly self assured and self rigteous landowner whose violent reaction to someone messing with his Property seems entirely natural. He’s got a lovely baritone but can whisper, snarl and growl with the best as required. Hannigan’s portrayal of an utter innocent coming of age and discovering that her elevation to being fully human must lead to her destruction is mesmerizing. Countertenor Bernhard Landauer manages the difficult job of portraying the dual nature of The Boy/Angel 1 despite the lack of production support. He has a bright clear voice that he can, apparently, darken at will as needed. It’s good to see a composer making such good use of this type of voice.Krisztina Szabó and Isaiah Bell rounded out the cast with efficient and effective portrayals of the other two angels. The Toronto Symphony was as good as I’ve heard them, playing with total commitment, especially the very large and busy percussion section.
Written on Skin has been seen enough now for it to be possible to say that here is a work that’s here to stay. It’s musically and dramatically extremely satisfying and I was very glad to see it, even in the semi-staged format. In the Q&A that followed the performance someone asked why it hadn’t been taken up by the COC. With Roy Thomson Hall far from full for a single performance the answer is obvious. It’s a shame but there are still twenty people who will buy tickets for a tired revival of Madama Butterfly for every one who will put out for a contemporary masterpiece. O temporal! O mores!