At my first live encounter with this 2012 work at the Academy of Music here on Friday, for the premiere of a new staging by Opera Philadelphia that runs through Feb. 18, I was struck by how reserved George Benjamin’s score is.
Not that there aren’t passages of loud density or idiosyncratic instrumentation — a typewriter, pebbles, sets of small tablas and glass harmonica augment the traditional orchestra — but on the whole the music gives the sense of being artfully curbed.
It’s as though “Pelléas et Mélisande” or “Wozzeck” had been partly quieted, even half-vaporized, their roiling energies kept — and sometimes not — at bay.
Will Kerley’s stage direction in Philadelphia amplifies this impression of reticence concealing glinting, surging colors.
The set, designed by Tom Rogers, is a giant gray box that rotates on a turntable and reveals, as doors open and walls push aside, a labyrinth of shifting spaces: raw wood incompletely painted a radiant blue and studded with panels with the jewel tones of stained glass.
This is the home of a married couple in medieval times. The wife (referred to sometimes as the Woman, sometimes as Agnès) is restive; the husband (the Protector), controlling.
Commenting on and guiding the action from our own moment, and dressed in this staging in futuristic, Sprockets-style black, is a trio of angels, vaguely sinister in its affectlessness. One of them doubles as the Boy, who enters the household under commission to depict the Protector’s dominion in images and letters.
Representing the world in art is portrayed by Benjamin and the librettist, the playwright Martin Crimp, as a complex, empowering, exposing, explosive, inevitably destructive enterprise. (Their next opera, “Lessons in Love and Violence,” has its premiere in London in May.) Her mind fired with new possibilities, Agnès begins an affair with the Boy.
When they’re discovered — the Protector, of course, reads about it in the book — he is murdered and she, after a cannibalistic climax that suggests “Salome” and “Titus Andronicus,” kills herself. A coda reflects on the angels’ “cold fascination with human disaster.”
A story about a woman’s defiant emergence into selfhood and her repression by a brutal husband obviously resonates differently now than it did just a year ago. But the detached, enigmatic text keeps our sympathies distant, and implicates our own fascination with disaster as much as it does the patriarchy it shows in action. We perceive onstage not personalities but vivid puppets, drawn to their doom by forces outside themselves.
Pity is particularly hard to summon in this new production, which conceives the central couple as more aristocratic, in a Disney “Sleeping Beauty” way, than the rough, flinty country gentry imagined by Katie Mitchell’s staging, in which the opera was first seen, captured on DVD and widely traveled. Barbara Hannigan, the Agnès in that premiere version, gave a performance of virtuosic vulnerability — dirty and wide-eyed.
In Philadelphia, the penetrating soprano Lauren Snouffer is more poised and self-possessed, more equal to her husband (the baritone Mark Stone, booming even in desperation) in presence if not in rights.
As the Boy and First Angel, the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo adroitly navigates the luminous and piercing, the gentle and chilly sides of his two-sided character.
Corrado Rovaris leads a muted account of the score — a coolly paced, grayish take that emphasizes the opera’s aloofness more than its expressiveness or range.
It’s not the most richly satisfying conducting. But the excellent cast and resourceful staging further burnish the reputation of Opera Philadelphia, a company that, with the recent inauguration of an annual fall festival focusing on new work, has swiftly become one of the most creative and ambitious in this country.
‘Written on Skin’ runs through Feb. 18 at the Academy of Music, Philadelphia; operaphila.org.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Source: Pulse. Ng