Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Modern Words, Modern Music

Written on Skin (U.S. Stage Premiere)
Music by George Benjamin
Text by Martin Crimp
August 13, 2015
Mostly Mozart Festival, Lincoln Center

Forbidden love.
Photo credit: Pascal Victor/Artcomart
The critically acclaimed contemporary composer George Benjamin’s Written on Skin received its stage premiere at this year’s Mostly Mozart Festival to great fanfare. Benjamin’s stab at modern opera has a lot going for it. The singing is largely very beautiful and the orchestra, conducted with tact and nuance by Alan Gilbert, chimes in throughout with dramatic color that ranges from the sublime to the haunting. The score was rarely intentionally strange for the sake of being strange the way so much modern music can be, though it constantly walks the line.

The Protector and his little lamb.
Photo credit: Pascal Victor/Artcomart
Unfortunately, I remain ambivalent about operatic singing in English. Martin Crimp’s highly poetic and rather unconventional libretto did little to assuage my ambivalence. There are certain things that simply do not need to be sung, like, for instance, compound Latinate words such as “international airport” (as in “cancel all the flights”) or expressions like “erase the Saturday car-park.” It just doesn’t work. I know it’s meant to be jarring and to emphasize the modern/medieval time contrast but it doesn’t lend compelling musicality to the whole. And what is with having them sing meta-narrative descriptors, like “He said” and “She said”? At one point Agnés sings a baffling description of a minor detail of her character’s experience. She sings: “What is it she feels between her bare feet and the wood floor? Grit.” How’s that for a non-sequitur? On the one hand it’s vaguely sensual, but on the other it’s just weird.

Bare feet, wood floor, grit.
Photo credit: Pascal Victor/Artcomart
Crimp and Benjamin are obviously pushing boundaries by having singers sing things that otherwise would neither be sung, nor spoken on your average stage. If Wagner dismantled the traditional aria, depriving his operas of heightened moments of musical narrative climax and emotional outpouring, Benjamin and his librettist give us meta-narrative descriptive details that, though surreal, hardly fit into narrative music, let alone into any other traditional storytelling mode. Crimp’s characters sing the unsingable. They are made to put to music the unnecessary, the superfluous.

The Protector unleashes his wrath.
Photo credit: Pascal Victor/Artcomart
While there are moments in which ordinary phrases enter the musical texture of the piece, more often than not big non-colloquial lines are pronounced. The Protector, sung by an imposing Christopher Purves, often talks in the abstract of big vague and apparently unrelated concepts like “purity and violence.” When asked about how his wife is doing he answers: “Sweet and clean.” Is this not the strangest answer to this simple throwaway everyday query you’ve ever heard? Later he will say straightforward things like, “Make him cry blood,” but also more convoluted thing like, “Expel him from joy / with a lacerating whip,” that sounds more awkward than a schoolboy’s mechanical rendering of an ablative absolute in his homework for Latin class. Crimp certainly has a knack for the uncanny turn of phrase.

Girl meets scribe who writes on skin.
Photo credit: Pascal Victor/Artcomart
At the same time, the composer also layers many musical conceits and colors onto the absurdly poetic libretto. Some of which come straight out of the classic book of compositional techniques that continue to work. When Agnés, sung by soprano Barbara Hannigan, and the Boy, sung by the angelic voiced countertenor Tim Mead, sing the line “Too close” together in amorous rapture their voices intertwine and trill like love birds.

Slow motion up the stairs.
Photo credit: Pascal Victor/Artcomart
There were many unique elements to this piece and its staged premiere performance. Like the ending with its slow motion chase across the stage and up the stairs. The production values were high and the set design was intricately ornate for such a short run. The compartmentalized way the stage was broken up vertically into a series of rooms as in a dollhouse contained under the same roof: a two story sort of modern backstage dressing room and design studio stand adjacent to the stark Medieval space of the Protector’s home in which a grove of trees has grown. This staging effectively and cleverly collapsed indoor and outdoor space, the contemporary with the antique. It’s rare to get such an elaborate set at the Met these days and it was a pleasure to look at and try to dissect its sense.

I want to have my faith in contemporary opera restored, and I still have high hopes for the art form. So much of it depends on the right synergy between music and text. Benjamin and Crimp are not entirely off the mark. By the end, I was clapping because at just an hour and forty minutes, I felt like the composer let us off the hook very judiciously and I wanted to thank him for that.

Lui & Lei

Medieval meets modern in the compartmentalized stage.
Photo credit: Pascal Victor/Artcomart
A woman alone.
Photo credit: Pascal Victor/Artcomart

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