Losing your heart to somebody else’s wife -- nothing could be more trivial in an opera. Losing your heart, having it cooked and eaten by your beloved -- we had to wait for George Benjamin for that twist.
“Written on Skin,” the U.K. composer’s new opera, had its world premiere at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, one of five sponsors, including the Nederlandse Opera and Covent Garden, that commissioned it.
On opening night, Benjamin was greeted with a standing ovation.
His compatriot Martin Crimp based the libretto on the legendary love life and grisly end of Guilhem de Cabestanh, a 13th-century troubadour. The Provencal legend of the eaten heart also appears in Boccaccio’s “Il Decamerone” and Ezra Pound’s “Cantos.”
Crimp, who is known for his enigmatic plays and hailed by many people as Harold Pinter’s successor, has renamed the three protagonists.
The troubadour has morphed into a scribe of illuminated manuscripts simply called The Boy. The noble lady who falls for him, Seremonda or Soremonda in the legend, and her vengeful husband are now Agnes and The Protector.
The 15 short scenes -- the opera lasts 100 minutes -- are, from time to time, interrupted by three angels in modern dress. Musing on parking lots and airports, they are supposed, we’re told by the author in the program, to remind us of the historical distance between the Middle Ages and our time.
Another peculiarity of the text is that the characters talk about themselves in the third person and sometimes recite the stage directions.
The crucial scene, in which Agnes unwittingly eats the heart of her lover, starts with the husband singing: “Woman and her Protector -- night. A room. A balcony. A long, white table. What has he placed in front of her?”
Fortunately, Benjamin’s music is more compelling than Crimp’s stilted alienation effects.
The 52-year-old composer might not have been born with theater blood in his veins: “Written on Skin” is only his second opera. The first, based on another medieval legend, lasted little more than half an hour.
Yet, like his teacher Olivier Messiaen, he knows how to create sensuous and haunting soundscapes.
The violent conflicts notwithstanding, the singers mostly communicate in a quiet conversational style. The drama erupts in the orchestra, which has been enriched with unusual instruments such as cow bells and a glass harmonica.
The general impression, though, is that of an eerie calm not unlike Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande.”
Benjamin wrote the vocal parts in close collaboration with the three protagonists. No wonder Christopher Purves (The Protector), Barbara Hannigan (Agnes) and Bejun Mehta, a countertenor (The Boy), are all excellent.
Director Katie Mitchell and Vicki Mortimer, the set designer, have found an intriguing solution for the two sides of the story: The medieval world is framed by an ultramodern, neon- lit printing office peopled with mysterious, slow-moving extras.
The composer himself conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.
“Written on Skin” is in repertory through July 14. In autumn, the production will travel to Amsterdam (Oct. 6-23) and Toulouse (Nov. 23-30) and later to London, Florence, Vienna, Munich and Paris.
The second highlight of the festival is Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s 1688 opera “David et Jonathas,” brilliantly conducted by William Christie and imaginatively directed by Andreas Homoki. Rating: ***.
The production of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro,” on the other hand, is a disappointment.
The most impressive character, apart from Kyle Ketelsen’s ebullient Figaro, is a well-trained Weimaraner who accompanies the Count into his wife’s bedroom. On opening night, the dog was the first to appear at the curtain calls, impassively receiving the thunderous applause. Rating: *.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Very Good ** Good * So-So (No Stars) Avoid
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