Very rarely do an opera's words, music and staging complement each other so perfectly they seem to have sprung from the same hand. Written on Skin is a multi-layered masterpiece that, like Parsifal or Così, resists a single authoritative interpretation.
The bones of the medieval tale are straightforward - a jealous husband murders his cheating wife's lover, the manuscript illuminator he hired. The modern archaeologists who discover the remains are more than a framing device. They raise questions about authorship and context. The protagonists sometimes narrate their own story, sometimes refer to a future they cannot know - are the words being put into their mouths? Katie Mitchell's familiar multi-level set, designed by Vicki Mortimer, is something I'd normally run a mile to avoid. Here it was for once perfectly attuned to the ambiguities of the material and its multiple dimensions and perspectives.
Martin Crimp's poetic text trains crystal-clear expression on his elusive targets. George Benjamin's music, which he conducted, wraps itself unassertively around the words. Here and there it twinkles with the strangeness of mandolin, viol and glass harmonica, twice it erupts in a tutti blast, but mostly the fastidiously placed notes are delicately underplayed. Voices never need to strain, and even when they're layered in conversation the words come through.
The score was written around this particular central cast, and it showed. Christopher Purves has rarely done anything better than the thuggish husband who unwittingly provokes his young wife's sexual awakening. Pure and servile or emancipated and ecstatic, Barbara Hannigan's silvered voice could do it all. The alien beauty of Bejun Mehta's unearthly countertenor embodied the fascination of the seductive intruder. Allan Clayton and Victoria Simmonds played their smaller but still important parts flawlessly.
After the disaster of last year's Judith Weir premiere, the Royal Opera House desperately needed to do something to restore the audience's faith in new opera. This is it. The only question begging to be asked is why they didn't commission it in the first place. Benjamin and Crimp have now written two important operas, both for French festivals. Isn't is about time that a British composer and writer received a British commission?
production photos (above) Stephen Cummiskey/Royal Opera House
curtain call photos (below)www.intermezzo.typepad.com