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It is one of the most talked-about and successful operas composed this century. The composer George Benjamin and the librettist Martin Crimp created the modern masterpiece Written on Skin (2012): it is dark, packed with excitement and jealousy, and ends in violence. The story is based on a 13th century legend about an artist who seduces his patron’s wife. The patron then murders the artist, whose heart he feeds to his adulterous wife. Benjamin’s music – which is already compared to Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck – moves with magnificent skill between moments of tranquil beauty and unmistakable brutality. This semi-staged performance, based on Katie Mitchell’s 2012 production, is played by the world renowned Mahler Chamber Orchestra, for which the work was composed.
‘An extraordinary opera,’ the New York Times declared. The Guardian spoke of ‘one of the most acclaimed operas of our times’. In the Netherlands the Volkskrant praised its ‘radiant song-lines,
sensitive scoring and the virtuosity of its concentrated text’, while the headline in the Dutch newspaper Trouw was: ‘Finally, an opera for eternity.’
With more than eighty performances around the world, Written on Skin (2012), the second opera by the British composer George Benjamin and his established librettist Martin Crimp, was unanimously hailed as a contemporary masterpiece by the international music press. During the Holland Festival 2018 the world-famous Mahler Chamber Orchestra – which premiered this piece under the direction of the composer at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in 2012 – will perform a semi-staged revival of this work, based on the original production by the British director Katie Mitchell, staged by British director Benjamin Davis.
For Written on Skin Benjamin and Crimp have drawn on a 13th century legend about the Catalan troubadour Guillem de Cabestaing. A cruel landowner, the Protector, invites an artist to his castle to make a book about him. The work should reflect his merciless exercise of power, but should also witness to the domestic bliss provided by his obedient wife Agnès. But Agnès gradually becomes more and more fascinated by the young artist – the Boy – and eventually seduces him. As a consequence the Protector murders the Boy and serves his heart to his unfaithful wife.
Written on Skin is a dark opera centred on themes of passion, jealousy, oppression and violence. In the grisly denouement of the work, however, there are also undertones of hope and emancipation. When Agnès realizes that she has eaten her lover’s heart, she declares that she has never tasted anything more delicious. This act of resistance from a free-spirited woman against a brutal husband makes the opera absolutely fitting for an era in which the patriarchal exercise of power is critically questioned.
Benjamin’s music– which has been compared to Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck – moves with virtuosic ease between moments of heightened beauty and unambiguous brutality. Agnès is played by the American soprano Georgia Jarman, who performed the same role to great acclaim in the revival production of Written on Skin at the Royal Opera House, London in early 2017. Her most important counterparts are the Norwegian baritone Audun Iversen as the Protector and the highly successful British countertenor Tim Mead as the Boy.
The British composer George Benjamin (1960) was sixteen when he went to Paris to study with Olivier Messiaen. After further studies with Alexander Goehr at King’s College, Cambridge, he made his debut in 1980 at the BBC Proms with his orchestral piece
Ringed by the Flat Horizon. This composition was followed by A Mind of Winter (1981), At First Light (1982) and Fanfare for Aquarius (1983), works famous for their colourful orchestration and richly beautiful sound-worlds.
In the 1990s the composer developed a more refined and formal style with Sudden Time (1993) and Three Inventions for Chamber Orchestra (1995). These were followed in 2006 by the chamber opera Into the Little Hill, Benjamin’s first piece for music theatre, performed at the Holland Festival in 2007. This work marked the start of his collaboration with dramatist Martin Crimp with whom in 2012 he created Written on Skin. This full scale opera was performed in the same year at the Dutch National Opera in a highly successful production. Lessons in Love and Violence (2017) is the third opera Benjamin and Crimp have created together.
Benjamin’s work is performed worldwide, often under his own direction. In his role as conductor he regularly appears with internationally renowned orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Sinfonietta, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Ensemble Modern. In 2015 he conducted his own Dream of the Song with the Dutch Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
George Benjamin lives and works in London where since 2001 he has held the position of Henry Purcell Professor of Composition at King’s College London. He frequently teaches at the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music and is Honorary Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music. In 2015 George Benjamin was made a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and is Composer in Focus during the 2018 Holland Festival.
The English playwright Martin Crimp (1956) read English at Cambridge University and started to write stories while he was still a student. He made his professional debut in 1982 with the performance of his play Living Remains in the Orange Tree Theatre, London, where in the 1988-89 season he was also Writer in Residence. His career expanded further when the Royal Court Theatre staged his drama No One Sees The Video (1990).
Crimp’s more recent work, including Cruel and Tender (2004), Fewer Emergencies (2005), The City (2008), Play House (2012) and The Rest Will Be Familiar to You from Cinema (2013), has ensured his position as one of the most important contemporary British dramatists. His work has been performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, the Almeida Theatre and the Young Vic, amongst others. Crimp’s work has been translated into many languages and is internationally performed. In New York his work has been staged by the Public Theatre, the Classic Stage Company and on Broadway, as well as at the Metropolitan Opera. Other important venues include the Piccolo Teatro, Milan, Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris and the Schaubühne, Berlin. Crimp has won a number of important awards and prizes, including the Radio Times Drama Award (1986), the prestigious John Whiting Award (1993) and the Italian Premio Ubu (2005) for his Fewer Emergencies trilogy.
Benjamin Davis studied in the UK, France and Brazil, was a staff director at Welsh National Opera from 2001-2011, and now combines post-graduate research at Cardiff University with freelance directing projects. Collaborations have included directing opera productions, revivals and semi-staged concerts with WNO, Scottish Opera, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Dutch National Opera, Opera Zuid, The Royal Danish Opera, Bayerishche Staatsoper, Berlin Staatsoper, Le Capitôle de Toulouse, Wiener Festwochen, Opéra Comique, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Teatro Real, Liceu Barcelona, Portland Opera, Canadian Opera Company, Salzburg Festival, Festival d’Aix en Provence, Cardiff International Dance Festival, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and Mahler Chamber Orchestra.
Having conducted many of the world’s greatest orchestras and opera companies in recent seasons, Dutch-Maltese conductor Lawrence Renes was, until recently, Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Royal Swedish Opera. During his time there, productions included the Swedish premiere of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, as well as Madama Butterfly, Idomeneo, The Rite of Spring, Tristan und Isolde, Die Walküre, Peter Grimes, Turandot, Salome, Der Rosenkavalier, and Jenůfa amongst others. A champion of John Adams, Renes has conducted productions of Nixon in China at San Francisco Opera and Doctor Atomic at both English National Opera and De Nederlandse Opera. Renes has conducted Adams’ orchestral works with London, Oslo and Hong Kong Philharmonic orchestras, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. Recent and upcoming engagements include debuts with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the NHK and Vancouver symphony orchestras, as well as returns to London Philharmonic Orchestra, the New Zealand and Melbourne symphony orchestras, and Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Other orchestras that Renes has worked with include the Sinfonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Staatskapelle Dresden, and NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover, as well as returns to Seattle Opera, Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo, Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Milwaukee and BBC Scottish symphony orchestras, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, and Residentie Orkest.
The Mahler Chamber Orchestra is a ‘nomadic collective of passionate musicians’, founded in 1997 by Claudio Abbado and former members of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. The collective consists of 45 members from 20 different countries and performs around 70 concerts each year. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra has various stable residencies in Ferrara, in Heidelberg, and at the Lucerne Festival, where the MCO is the fixed core of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. The newly-founded orchestra had its first great success during the 1998 Aix-en-Provence Festival with its performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, conducted by Abbado. Since then the Mahler Chamber Orchestra has regularly played at this festival, collaborating in productions of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw (2001), Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte (2005) and Benjamin’s Written on Skin (2012). The MCO frequently works with renowned conductors such as Daniel Harding, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Teodor Currentzis and Daniele Gatti, who since 2016 has been the orchestra’s artistic advisor. The soloists with whom the orchestra has worked include Cecilia Bartoli, Martha Argerich, Mitsuko Uchida, Isabelle Faust, Emanuel Ax and Jean-Guihen Queyras. The orchestra has received several awards for its CD recordings, winning the Choc du monde de la musique (2003) for Haydn’s Cello Concertos with Gautier Capuçon, a Grammy Award for Beethoven Piano concertos with Martha Argerich, and a Diapason d’or for the recording of violin concertos of Stravinsky and Alban Berg with Kolja Blacher. In 2017 the MCO also worked on a Chopin CD with the pianist Daniil Trifonov.
- George Benjamin
- performed by
- Mahler Chamber Orchestra
- Lawrence Renes
- Georgia Jarman (Agnès),
Audun Iversen (The Protector),
Tim Mead (Angel 1/The Boy),
Krisztina Szabó (Angel 2/Marie),
Robert Murray (Angel 3/John)
- stage direction
- Benjamin Davis