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Written on Skin review at Royal Opera House, London – ‘a modern masterpiece’

Iestyn Davies (right) in Written On Skinat the Royal Opera House. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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George Benjamin’s second opera, Written on Skin was premiered at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012 and made a strong impression when it came to Covent Garden the following year; in its first revival at the Royal Opera House, it impresses even more.

On repeated viewing, the conscious artificialities of Martin Crimp’s otherwise economical text – whereby characters sometimes narrate their own activities – fold naturally into the layered quality of a piece that presents a medieval story within the frame of a second, contemporary time period. The modern characters – archivists exploring and recording the distant past – are simultaneously angels of the medieval mind, the various rooms of Vicki Mortimer’s intricate set defining their allotted spaces and time zones while also allowing us to see where and how they collide. If that sounds complex, Katie Mitchell’s considered production nevertheless makes things surprisingly clear.

The ambiguity lies within the characters themselves, caught up in a variation on the standard eternal triangle, only with the young male lover a countertenor, not the usual tenor. Iestyn Davies supplies some of the most beautiful sounds one will ever hear from his particular voice category in the role of the Boy whose commission to produce an illuminated manuscript leads inevitably to the opera’s gruesome conclusion. Baritone Christopher Purves discovers complex nuances in the part of the brutal local overlord who commissions him, while Barbara Hannigan’s high-flying soprano helps bring the latter’s wife Agnes some of the empowerment she so desperately craves. Victoria Simmonds and Mark Padmore, meanwhile, bring solidity to the secondary roles of Agnes’s sister Marie and her husband John.

The composer himself returns to conduct this musically taut account of a subtle and fascinating score only lightly sprinkled with archaic sounds but whose overall delicacy and restraint alternating with sheer dramatic punch surely mark it out as a modern masterpiece.         

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George Benjamin’s opera returns to Covent Garden in Katie Mitchell’s clear-sighted staging