When George Benjamin’s Written on Skin debuted at Aix en Provence five years ago it was met with near unanimous critical acclaim. This, we were reliably informed, was a modern classic of 21st century opera. It was staged at the Royal Opera House the following year and generated five star reviews across the board.
There’s certainly a lot to like. Benjamin writes for an expanded orchestra, featuring instruments such as glass harmonica and bass viol, rarely heard in the orchestra pit. As a result there’s a real breadth of colour and texture in the score. And, because Benjamin rarely uses the full orchestra, each voice, both human and instrumental, is given space. As a result the singers are framed, rather than overwhelmed, and voices weave around, and often emerge from, sparse, sometimes starkly beautiful textures. When the full force of the orchestra is finally unleashed towards the end of the opera the effect is heightened by having been so carefully withheld.
The singing is also of the highest quality across the board. Even though Christopher Purves was unable to sing the role of The Protector due to a throat infection, and had to act it while James Cleverton sang from the side of the stage, the performance didn’t suffer as a result.
But, and it’s a big but, for me, where Written on Skin fails to deliver is dramatically. The biggest stumbling block is characters’ narration of their own stories in the third person. It’s a device and a distraction that obscures rather than illuminates and pushes you back out of the action, rather than drawing you in. There’s menace and passion in the libretto but also a strange indifference, as though we observe these emotions rather than feeling them. The overall effect is an opera designed to chill but that, ultimately, left me cold.
I desperately wanted to like Written on Skin but couldn’t. I am, as a quick spot of Googling will tell you, firmly in the minority. You’ve got till the end of January to catch a performance and make up your own mind.
Written on the Skin at the Royal Opera House until 30th January 2017. For more information and to book please visit the website.