LONDON (Reuters) - The very title, “Written On Skin”, has the attention-grabbing power of fingernails scraping on a chalkboard.
Add to that sex, lies, treachery and what may or may not be cannibalism, but definitely is not your mother’s cooked liver with onions, and it’s no wonder the London premiere this week of composer George Benjamin and playwright Martin Crimp’s new opera at Covent Garden is eagerly anticipated.
“I’ve wanted ever since I was a nine-year-old child to write a big opera,” Benjamin, who turned 52 last year, told Reuters during a joint interview with Crimp following a rehearsal for the Friday premiere.
“It’s a marvelous new door that’s opened,” said Crimp, 57, who has a long string of playwriting credits to his name but just this opera and a shorter two-hander with Benjamin.
And what an opera it is.
Based on a 12th-century French Provencal tale, “Written on Skin” is the classic love triangle, but with a gruesome twist: the wife who falls in love with a young man - an illuminator of parchments who gives the title one of its meanings - unwittingly is fed her lover’s cooked heart by her jealous husband.
When told what she has just eaten, she tells her bullying spouse, the Protector, that she will savour the taste all her life before making her dramatic gesture.
All this takes place to music scored for a conventional orchestra but also for cow bells, a glass harmonica, viola da gamba and mandolins that has been described as having an almost “hallucinatory refinement”.
The world premiere at the Aix-en-Provence festival in France last year, plus runs in Amsterdam and Toulouse of the same staging with almost identical casts, were met with superlatives rarely associated with new music, let alone new opera.
It has been snatched up for a concert premiere in the United States at the Tanglewood music festival in New York next summer, and there will be a full staging in the U.S. in 2015, Benjamin said, though he declined to reveal where.
“It’s almost embarrassing,” he added, this being for him and Crimp the first full-length opera, but, they said, not the last.
Like Mozart and da Ponte, or Meyerbeer and Scribe, to name two famous composer-librettist teams, Benjamin and Crimp said there is a chemistry between them.
“The most important ingredient without question was meeting Martin,” Benjamin said, their first effort having been the eerie Pied Piper of Hamelin-derived “Into the Little Hill” chamber opera that has built up an enthusiastic following since its premiere in 2006.
Crimp has brought a particular stagecraft to their work, part of it having to do with the characters singing about themselves in the third person.
The technique “gets the notion of artifice out of the way...and at the same time you might say there’s something strange about it and this, of course, I believe is useful,” Crimp said.
Benjamin said the technique had made it possible for him to see his way to writing opera, since at one blow it made it clear that the work was set in an artificial world and was not even remotely attempting to compete with the cinema.
“Opera was born to tell myths...but cinema has taken a very great amount of the myths our culture seems to need. This very simple technique...was the one tiny atomic thing that I needed to become an opera composer,” he said.
While Crimp was condensing the libretto into half the length he would have needed to write a play, Benjamin had to expand his musical vocabulary.
“The story itself is drenched in eroticism and to represent that musically, and very directly on the stage, was a challenge I hadn’t had to do before. Equally, some of the story is of a very cruel violence, and again to represent that in terms of stage music I’d never had to do before.”
Both men bristle at the notion, though, that what happens in the grisly denouement is, in fact, cannibalism.
“It’s not cannibalism, firstly in the eating, she doesn’t know what she’s eating, he does,” Benjamin said. “But he’s not doing the cannibalising. It’s a form of torture but it’s not cannibalism, not intentional cannibalism.”
For Crimp, the message is about violence - the omnipresent violence of life in 12th century Europe but also the violence that continues through the ages, especially towards women, which he said was underscored in director Katie Mitchell’s staging.
“It definitely has a relevance and I would say one of the main strands, looking at the play and in Katie Mitchell’s production, is about the control of women, the control of female sexuality and that, I think, is a subject that doesn’t go away.”
Editing by Mike Collett-White