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The British composer George Benjamin has quietly developed a reputation for serious, meticulous work. His creative output is limited because he proceeds very slowly. I first heard his music in 2000, when no less a conductor than Pierre Boulez led a piece of his at Carnegie Hall. But after the premiere of his first full-length opera at the Aix-en-Provence Festival last year, his reputation seems to have taken off. The New Yorker's Alex Ross called it "the work of a genius unleashed."
The opera, Written on Skin, has a libretto by the prolific English playwright Martin Crimp. It's his second collaboration with Benjamin, and they're already planning another one. Written on Skin is both beautiful and bleak, with darkly translucent orchestration that includes mandolin, viola da gamba, and an eerie glass harmonica.
Since the Festival at Aix was the initial commissioner, the one stipulation was that the opera had to have something to do with that region of France. So Crimp's libretto is based on a 13th-century Provençal tale about a wealthy and powerful landowner — Crimp calls him the Protector — who takes in a young artist to paint a book on vellum or parchment (on skin) that glorifies all the owner's possessions, including his young wife. When the Protector discovers that the artist is sleeping with his wife (another kind of writing on skin), he murders the artist and feeds his heart to the wife. In the opera, the wife sings ecstatically that nothing can ever take away the sweet/salty taste of her lover's heart. Then, before her husband can kill her, she leaps to her death from a balcony. In the concert version I heard this summer at Tanglewood's Festival of Contemporary Music, the young professionals that Benjamin himself conducted made it hair-raising.
This opera is not the traditional collection of arias and recitatives. Like two of its great antecedents, Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande and Berg's Wozzeck, it's really a setting of a play divided into short scenes, with some of the best music coming between the scenes. Benjamin considers opera a very artificial form, and the libretto emphasizes this artificiality by having the characters frequently refer to themselves in the third person, so that they both live their experiences and sing about them. There's also a mysterious overlapping of time. The opera takes place in both the 13th century and in our own time. Three Angels, who are both narrators and characters — one plays the young artist — sing about how our modern civilization, with its parking lots and international airports, has been built on top of the "heaped-up dead." In a nightmare, the self-absorbed Protector is having, the Angels sing: "What kind of man will not see?"
Such a grim subject is not unheard of in opera. Bodies pile up in many of the most popular of them; Puccini's Tosca also jumps to her death. But in few operas does all the mayhem express what underlies Written on Skin: a profound awareness of human cruelty and its inextricable connection to passion and art. That tension fills every bar of Benjamin's brutal and ravishing score.