Written on Skin at the Royal Opera House
When acclaimed playwright Martin Crimp was asked to create a new opera for the Aix-en-Provence Festival, he decided to mine the area’s history for the seed of a story. The one that stood out – and demanded to be sung about – was the dramatic legend of troubadour Guillem de Cabestaing and the “eaten heart”. Together with composer George Benjamin, Crimp fashioned this medieval tale into one of the most celebrated operas of recent years. It now returns to the setting of its UK premiere to enthral audiences once more.
In Crimp’s modern retelling, he explores the tale’s enduring themes of power, love and violence – as well as the transformative power of art – in three acts. But he does so from a contemporary perspective, emphasising the timeless nature of these concerns: the power struggle between lovers, and the jealousy that erotic love inspires, are stories that will be played out through all time.
Under Katie Mitchell’s tight direction, Written on Skin moves between the past and present. Acting as a kind of chorus, mysterious 21st-century angels who “want to crank the universe on its axis” watch from the sidelines as the drama unfolds. Emotionally detached from the action and scathing of human nature, they serve to both frame and propel the narrative. Crimp’s libretto skilfully straddles and illuminates the dual time frames. At once sparse and poetic, the piece combines the banal (there are references to car parks and shopping malls) with ornate descriptions of love and longing that borrow from other medieval texts. Vicki Mortimer’s set also brings to life the dual setting. Characters move back and forth between what appears to be a modern office and an interior reminiscent of a Vermeer painting.
Reprising her role as Agnes, the mesmerising and pitch-perfect Barbara Hannigan brings a remarkable emotional range to the part. Dominated by her husband (Christopher Purves), the egotistical and brutish Protector, she rails against his efforts to treat her like a child. Hesitant at first, by the final act we see that by unleashing her sexuality Agnes has gained the upper hand in their power struggle – even if it comes at a terrible price. Hannigan is also an impressive physical performer and her final dreamlike sequence creates an unforgettable image.
Benjamin’s inventive score beautifully illuminates the action. Understated at times to match the moments of repressed emotion and quiet, it ratchets up the tension dramatically with thundering percussion when the inevitable violence unfolds.
Photos: Stephen Cummiskey
Written on Skin is at the Royal Opera House from 13th until 30th January 2017. Book your tickets here.