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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Opera Review: It's in the Fine Print


Written on Skin premieres at Mostly Mozart.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Protection: The Protector (Christopher Purves) and his wife (Barbara Hannigan) in a domestic moment
from Written on Skin. Photo by Pascal Victor for Artcomat © 2013 Festival d'Aix-en-Provence.
What goes around, comes around. That aphorism might be applied to George Benjamin's Written on Skin, which had its long-awaited New York debut Tuesday night on the stage of the David Koch Theater at Lincoln Center.The composer's second effort in the genre, Skin (presented here in a production imported from Aix-en-Provence) is the central operatic offering of this summer's Mostly Mozart Festival, a work that tries to establish a new style for the 21st century by drawing on the ideas and concepts of a century ago.



Set to a libretto by Martin Crimp, this is a multilayered story centered around a married couple: the brutish Protector and his wife, and the latter's dalliance with an angelic "Boy" commissioned to create an illustrated manuscript chronicling the Protector's righteousness and good deeds. This is a recipe for domestic disaster, The repressed wife (her name is finally revealed to be Agnes) falls in love with the Boy. He is murdered and in the finale his heart is cut out and served on a dinner plate. She climbs the stairway on one side of the set, presumably on her way to a Tosca-like suicide This sad little trio is framed by the inexplicable actions of a chorus of angels, who occasionally inspire the actions of the protagonists but otherwise spend time off the main chamber of the set engaging in various domestic activities.

The most complex figure here is the Boy, who is literally an angel descended to Earth, first for the aforementioned literary endeavor and then to attempt to rescue Agnes from her hellish marriage. Countertenor Tim Mead brought a youthful energy and an otherworldly head voice to this not-quite-human part, an Adonis who ultimately becomes a blood sacrifice. After his murder, the singer retreated to the upper level of the splitset and returned to angelic form. Mention should also be made of mezzo Victoria Simmonds and tenor Robert Murray, who made a credible impression as John and Marie (the opera's only other characters) who are also incarnations of angels.

Christopher Purves was intense and characterful as the Protector, despite being forced to switch between full-out-singing, soft crooning and Berg-like sprechstimme to keep up with the roller-coaster of stylistic shifts in the score. His performance climaxed with the kind of wild-eyed cannibalistic intensity that recalled the final act of Titus Andronicus. As his very put-upon wife soprano Barbara Hannigan did a credible slow burn, emerging as a fully realized adult from the shell of servitude constructed by her brutish husband. She met the demands of the score from guttural whispers to full-out screams and still had enough resources to sing the third act.

With  its abstract, sometimes nameless characters and movement between the present, the past and the spirit world, the libretto (the playwright prefers the word "text") recalls the dramas of Maurice Maeterlinck and Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, but in a more heavy-handed way that reminds one of verismo. Mr. Crimp forces his characters to interrogate each other in a series of Dick-and-Jane like Q & A's against a rising pitch and volume. This effect is maddening in the third act as  the Protector murders the Boy and then forces his wife to eat her lover's heart (which is prepared for culinary gustation by the aforementioned angels, who apparently do kitchen work as well as book-binding.

These bloody events are set to a spiky score. Mr. Benjamin paints with a vast orchestral palette. Spidery supporting sounds support the vocal line, occasionally interrupted by abrasive tone clusters. Packed into the pit of the Koch Theater, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra incorporated odd wind instruments (the contrabass clarinet) to viola da gamba and lithophones, the simple chilling effect of two small rocks struck together. All this orchestral pictorialism was expertly cued by Alan Gilbert, in a welcome reminder of the New York Philharmonic music director's considerable skill as an opera conductor.

It was somehow fitting that the Koch Theater was the choice for these performance. When this building on the south side of Lincoln Center opened, it was called the New York State Theater. The State Theater was the longtime home to the New York City Opera, a company which left Lincoln Center in 2011 and finally folded in 2013. With its simple unit set, modernist sensibility and modest vocal needs, Written on Skin is just the sort of work that that City Opera would apply itself to with energy and industry. One cannot but hope that such a company will emerge once more in New York for further performances of operas like this.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.