Written on Skin, a new opera by composer George Benjamin and writer Martin Crimp, retells a thirteenth century French romance of a young woman named Agnès and the Boy her husband the Protector brings into their home to create an illuminated manuscript for him. A mash-up of modern and medieval worlds in which it is never entirely clear who is in charge of the story, this new opera provides a fusion of the modes of postmodern theatre and operatic performance which results in an innovative approach to storytelling through song.
The cast consists of the three main roles of Agnès, the Protector and the Boy who remain largely in the medieval world, plus a collection of people in modern dress who initiate the action of each scene, dressing the actors and physically placing them on stage as well as performing scene changes and singing the few ensemble movements of the piece. They are always visible, walking at an infinitely slow pace about their modern office environment while the action of the three principal characters takes place in another room. These ‘rooms,’ in fact, are a fascinating design element, a two-story set consisting of cubes of both the modern and medieval worlds that come together to form a shallow box resembling a picture frame or book into which we are gazing.
The idea of the book plays a great deal of importance in this story. Not only is the Boy engaged in the act of making a book when he has his affair with Agnès, but it is also implied that the modern characters are somehow reading the French story out of a book and bringing it to life. Even the lyrics of the opera, written by playwright rather than librettist Crimp, are very prosaic and narrative, the characters often referring to themselves in the third person (‘says the Boy’) and speaking in relatively modern language.
There is far too much to follow in this opera to be able to understand it all at once. There are the medieval scenes and the modern scenes being enacted simultaneously, the subtitles floating just above the set to help understand the singing, the often overlapping sung narrative and the orchestral component, which rather than supporting the singing directly provides yet another separate component to listen to and attempt to understand. The music never swells along with the singing or at the conclusion of a movement of music, leaving the audience in confusion as to when to applaud or if the longer scene changes were supposed to be an intermission. The singing is flawless, of course, but the music is quite difficult to relate to even for an opera, and by the time the modern and medieval worlds have merged completely with Agnès’s sister and brother-in-law in modern dress interacting directly with the Boy, it is extremely difficult to follow exactly what is going on.
Director Katie Mitchell has created a postmodern masterpiece, but within the already challenging vocabulary of opera it presents more as a collection of fascinating theatrical signs than an intelligible whole. Still, innovation in the world of opera is quite difficult to manage, and Written on Skin certainly accomplishes that. It defies conclusive interpretation of its narrative or overarching meaning, leaving the audience to wonder for long after exactly what story they have just watched.