Written on Skin

.This is a modern-day version of a tale written in the age of Courtly Love (the 13th Century). “Written on Skin” by George Benjamin, with text by Martin Crimp, is told in opera form and was performed at the Royal Opera House on January 30th.

The story is quite simple, a three-way sexual split between a landowner, known only as the Protector, his teenage wife, the Wife, and their boy/lover/scribe on vellum, aka Boy. The Protector and his Wife are proscribed in their sexual feelings by the mores of the day. The Boy is indiscriminately modern and has a sexual relationship with both parties. He is also the artist commissioned to produce a book on “skin” to celebrate the Protector’s family and wealth. All good so far. However, along the way, the Protector finds out about his Wife’s indiscretion, eviscerates the Boy, and serves up his heart on toast, as it were, to the Wife for a nice intimate meal. Of course her reaction is extreme and she throws herself off the roof.

We are also subjected to some of the worst cacophonous noise I have heard in years, not to mention lashings of the faults of capitalism and the iniquities of the patriarchy. The last time I heard such toneless noise, was in Santa Fe at the world premiere of Judith Weir’s “Night at the Chinese Opera.” She too is an English modernist. There must be something in the water here.

I must confess that the action was telegraphed early on and I kind of knew that the denouement was not going to be pretty. Afterall, I am an inveterate opera-goer, but this was a bit too much for my stomach and I had a feeling of extreme queasiness as the action progressed. Would she eat the heart with Branston Pickle? Would she go for the Heinz Ketchup? It seems that she consumed it au natural and claimed that the taste would remain in her mouth for the rest of her life, which was over in about ten minutes.

As the curtain fell, some in the audience like myself remained somewhat stunned. Should they reward the performers with applause? Should they leave as quick as their little legs can carry them out into the night’s damp but fresh air? Or should they rise from their seats and applaud madly for something that truly deserved a very timely burial. The answer was mixed.

Kaaren Hale



One Response to “Written on Skin”

  1. I was at the ROH on 30/01/17 and can report that audience reaction to the return of Written on Skin was not mixed but rapturous applause for the wonderful soprano Barbara Hannigan and the others and for George Benjamin who conducted.

    The primere at Aix en Provence three years ago was a triumph as was its first performance in London shortly thereafter. Kudos also for Katie Mitchell for her creative artistic direction and Martin Crimp for Libtetto.

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