Written on Skin is an opera by the British composer George Benjamin.
Benjamin's first full-length opera, it was premiered at the 2012 Aix-en-Provence Festival by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra as a commission from five opera centres, and received its British premiere at the Royal Opera House in London in March 2013 and its Paris premiere at the Opéra-Comique in November that year; Benjamin conducted for all of these premiere seasons.
The libretto by Martin Crimp, who also wrote the libretto for Benjamin's first opera Into The Little Hill, is based on legend of the troubadour Guillaume de Cabestanh; the story is also repeated in The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio. The action takes place in 13th-century Provence.
The opera is divided into 15 scenes. The Protector (a rich land-owner) pays the Boy (an artist) to create and illustrate a manuscript about his family. The Boy and the Protector's wife Agnès are attracted to each other. Incensed by the reawakened independence of his wife, the Protector murders the Boy and forces Agnès unwittingly to eat his heart. Agnès commits suicide. 'Angels' comment throughout on the action from a modern-day perspective.
The success of the opera in performance motivated the Royal Opera to commission a second full-length opera by Crimp and Benjamin, Lessons in Love and Violence, premiered at the Royal Opera House in May 2018.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere cast, Aix-en-Provence
7 July 2012
Conductor: George Benjamin
|Premiere cast, Royal Opera House|
16 March 2013
Conductor: George Benjamin
|Agnès||soprano||Barbara Hannigan||Barbara Hannigan|
|Protector||bass-baritone||Christopher Purves||Christopher Purves|
|First Angel/Boy||countertenor||Bejun Mehta||Bejun Mehta|
|Second Angel/Marie||mezzo-soprano||Rebecca Jo Loeb||Victoria Simmonds|
|Third Angel/John||tenor||Allan Clayton||Allan Clayton|
- Scene 1: Chorus of Angels.
The chorus takes us back to 800 years ago, when books were "written on skin," and introduces the protagonists: the Protector (a wealthy landowner) "addicted to purity and violence" and Agnès, his wife, his "property." One of the angels transforms into the Boy, a manuscript illuminator.
- Scene 2: The Protector, Agnès and the Boy
The Protector asks the Boy to create a book celebrating his life, showing his enemies in Hell and his family in Paradise. The Boy shows the Protector a sample of his work. Agnès distrusts the Boy and is skeptical of the creation of images picturing their lives, but her objections are overruled by the Protector.
- Scene 3: Chorus of Angels
The Angels recall the brutality of the biblical story of Creation and its hostility toward women.
- Scene 4: Agnès and the Boy
Unknown to her husband, Agnès visits the Boy's workshop to see how a book is made. When the Boy shows a picture of Eve, Agnès laughs and challenges him to make an image of a real woman, one that he could want sexually.
- Scene 5: The Protector, John, and Marie
With the approach of winter, the Protector ruminates on Agnès's changed demeanor. She hardly talks or eats, turns her back on him, and pretends to sleep at night. Marie and John (Agnès's sister and brother-in-law) arrive for a visit. Marie is skeptical of the idea of writing a book and questions why the Boy is treated like a member of the family. This arouses the Protector's anger: he defends the Boy and his book, and threatens to forbid Marie and John from entering his property.
- Scene 6: Agnès and the Boy
That night, the Boy visits Agnès in her room alone and shows a picture of the kind she wished for. At first not recognizing it, she gradually realizes the painted image, of a woman on a bed, is of her. They look at the picture together and Agnès offers herself to the Boy.
- Scene 7: The Protector's bad dream
The Protector dreams that his people are rebelling against the book, and that there are rumors of a secret page where Agnès is shown gripping the Boy in bed.
- Scene 8: The Protector and Agnès
The Protect wakes up from the dream and reaches for Agnès, who is standing by the window watching the Protector's men burn villages. She asks her husband to touch and kiss her but he is disgusted by her request and says that it results from her childishness. Angered at being called a child, Agnès challenges her husband to go to the Boy and "ask him what I am."
- Scene 9: The Protector and the Boy
In the woods, the Protector confronts the Boy and asks who he is sleeping with and whether it's Agnès. Wanting to protect Agnès, the Boy lies and says he is sleeping with Marie. Satisfied, the Protector returns to the house and tells Agnès that the Boy is sleeping with "that whore your sister."
- Scene 10: Agnès and the Boy
Believing the Protector's story, Agnès accuses the Boy of betraying her, but the Boy explains he lied to protect her. Agnès says he was only protecting himself. She tells the Boy that if he really loved her, he would tell the truth and punish the Protector for treating Agnès like a child. She demands that the Boy create an image that will destroy the husband's smugness.
- Scene 11: The Protector, Agnès and the Boy
The Boy shows the Protector and Agnès some pages from the manuscript, including images of atrocities. The Protector asks to see images of Paradise, but the Boy responds that these images are Paradise and questions whether the Protector sees his own family and property in them. Agnès then asks to be shown the images of Hell. The Boy presents her with a page of writing, frustrating Agnès because, as a woman, she has never been taught how to read. The Boy leaves, leaving the Protector and Agnès with this "secret page."
- Scene 12: The Protector and Agnès
The Protector reads the "secret page." The Boy has written a detailed description of his relationship with Agnès. This makes the Protector furious, but satisfies Agnès because it shows the Boy did exactly what she wanted. Ignoring her husband's anger, she asks him to show her the word for love.
- Scene 13: Chorus of Angels and the Protector
The Angels describe the cruelty of a God who creates man with conflicting desires, making him "ashamed to be human." The Protector goes into the woods and murders the Boy.
- Scene 14: The Protector and Agnès
The Protector attempts to reassert control over Agnès. Sitting at a long table, she is forced to eat a meal to prove her obedience. The Protector repeatedly asks her how the food tastes and is infuriated by her response that it tastes good. He then reveals that she has eaten the Boy's heart. Agnès proclaims that no act of violence will remove the taste of the Boy's heart from her mouth.
- Scene 15: The Boy/Angel 1
The Boy reappears as the Angel and shows one more picture: Agnès, suspended in midair. The Protector had rushed at her with the intent of killing her, but before he could, she took her own life by jumping from the balcony. Three angels painted in the margin turn to the audience.
One reviewer described the music for Written on Skin as "glistening, mysterious sounds" from the orchestra (which includes viola da gamba and glass harmonica) in "Benjamin's most vivid music to date, in a score embracing everything from sensuousness to explosive ferocity". In a 2019 poll by The Guardian, the opera was ranked the second-greatest classical composition of the 21st century, with Erica Jeal lauding the score as “tense, precise and often glowingly beautiful”.
- John Allison. Review of operas performed at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Opera, September 2012, Volume 63 No 9, p1087-88.
- Royal Opera House website, Written on Skin, accessed 16 March 2013
- Written on Skin, review by Andrew Clements in The Guardian, 8 July 2012, accessed 16 March 2013
- Royal Opera House website, "New opera by George Benjamin and Martin Crimp announced", 31 January 2017 (accessed 6 April 2018).
- Royal Opera House website, cast list, accessed 16 March 2013
- Clements, Andrew; Maddocks, Fiona; Lewis, John; Molleson, Kate; Service, Tom; Jeal, Erica; Ashley, Tim (12 September 2019). "The best classical music works of the 21st century". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 12 October 2019.
- Alex Ross, "Illuminated: George Benjamin's long-awaited masterpiece", The New Yorker, 25 March 2013
- Andrew Powell, "Written on Skin, at Length", Musical America, 24 August 2013.
- Written on Skin, program book for the U.S. stage premiere at the David H. Koch Theatre, New York City, August 11, 13 and 15, 2015.
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