Composer: George Benjamin
librettist: Martin Crimp
Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Christopher Purves: The Protector
Barbara Hannigan: Agnès
Tim Mead: Angel 1/The Boy
Victoria Simmonds: Angel 2/Marie
Robert Murray: Angel 3/John
For all its undeniably attractive offerings, the Mostly Mozart Festival programming can sometimes feel overly traditional and predictable. As much as I love the tried and true classics, I do not need to hear them again and again every year when there is an untapped richness of lesser known and exciting works out there. And I like to think that Herr Mozart, the ultimate music man of his time, would have agreed.
So when this year's program was announced, I was thrilled to notice contemporary British composer − and conductor, pianist, teacher, and Mostly Mozart Festival's current composer-in-residence − George Benjamin proudly standing out among the usual suspects, although it of course makes perfect sense when you know that no less than Olivier Messaien once compared Benjamin, then his student, to Mozart. I was even more thrilled that the crash course in his œuvre would even have two components, with first three performances of his most ambitious opera to date, Written on Skin, whose glowing reputation made you wonder where it had been for the past three years (Actually in quite a few European cultural capitals, and at Tanglewood in concert form), and then on Sunday his chamber opera Into a Little Hill, a definitely more low-key but equally intriguing work.
Therefore, last Saturday, on a hot and muggy afternoon, I eagerly walked down to the Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater, which has the significant advantage of providing a more intimate venue than its more famous neighbor, the cavernous Metropolitan Opera, and which had become foreign territory to me pretty much after the New York City Opera left it. It was nice to be back, especially for a promising endeavor that would have probably felt right at home with NYCO.
I had decided not to learn too much about the opera to be able to approach it with fresh ears, but what I had heard in passing had certainly picked my interest, what with an ill-fated love triangle inspired by a 13th provençal troubadour's story, a study of the connections between past and present, lofty themes such as art, love, sex, violence and politics, exacerbated passions expressed in an austere setting, and angels. That's a lot of different ingredients to throw into the same pot, but then again, with the right cooks a real treat just might come out of it.
The opera may have a somewhat unusual structure, not to mention score, but at least it has one typical element: A woman is the troublemaker. In this case, who could blame her since her main purpose in life is to be obedient to her overbearing husband? Since she premiered the role of Agnès in Aix-en-Provence three years ago, soprano Barbara Hannigan has honed the part so well that it is hard to imagine anybody else in it. Her highly precise, steely but never rigid, singing easily moved from open sensuality to utter desperation with unwavering aplomb, and to top it all off, she can also act with the right combination of subtlety and intensity.
Baritone Christopher Purves was also in Aix-en-Provence as the nameless Protector, a complex part to which he brought a stunning range of dark vocal colors and deeply committed acting as well. Apparently well-meaning, but with an unmistakable sinister streak, he was the bad guy that just did not know any better.
As the Boy chosen by the Protector to create an illuminated book about himself and by Agnès to become her object of desire, countertenor Tim Mead exuded the right amount of youthful innocence and effortlessly reached a remarkable purity of sound.
The opera and the 100-minute, intermission-free production of it were highly and for the most part efficiently compartmentalized. Martin Crimp's carefully calibrated libretto was divided into three parts, which were neatly sub-divided into 15 tightly organized scenes. The set was divided into five spaces, although not all of them were necessary. But while the set-up was generally lean and smart, that did not fully prevent some slightly confusing moments as past and present collided.
The fact that the modern-day angels were sometimes commenting like a Greek chorus, sometimes intervening directly, maintained a Brechtian distance from the actual narrative, a deliberate choice that was reinforced by the singers often describing what they were doing and saying. This ended up making the production more artificially theatrical and softening the visceral effect of the most dramatic moments. Nevertheless, all the scenes involving the three main characters turned out seriously gripping, clearly proving that the core story had more than enough substance to stand on its own.
The music has been described as ravishing more than once, and I am happy to confirm that this seemingly hyperbolic accolade is totally justified. Pulling out all the stops, George Benjamin has come up with a clever mix of delicate exquisiteness and hard-core grittiness, masterfully alternating rapturous moments of pregnant quietness and violent explosions of grating harshness. With the help of unusual instruments like the bass viol, the glass harmonica and some cowbells, the uncompromising composer has indeed created a unique and memorable score.
As the music went on, it quickly became clear that each and every note had been meticulously chosen and that one tiny change would have irremediably unsettle the entire experience. Even the original grumbling I heard behind me from what had to be an old-school Met subscriber subsided right after the short but admittedly aggressively dissonant opening, and thankfully not a single additional peep was heard again after that.
Right across Lincoln Plaza from his usual home, maestro Gilbert looked perfectly at ease in the orchestra pit and led the consistently fabulous Mahler Chamber Orchestra in a bold, detailed and vibrant performance. To accomplish this impressive feat, he expertly highlighted the music's extraordinary complexity while making sure to keep it downright accessible and perfectly in tune with the action unfolding on the stage.
Written on Skin has been heralded by some critics and audiences as the "best opera written in the 21st century", which is about as good a statement as any marketing professional can dream of. On the other hand, while the opera is indisputably a major artistic achievement, we also have to face the fact that the praise is that high because the bar has been set so agonizingly low for so long. With so few other contemporary operas to compete with, anything that has a lot going for it is bound to stand out by default.
And stand out it did on Saturday afternoon, with the beaming artists and the endearingly unassuming composer rightfully enjoying a well-deserved stupendous ovation. And although I thought it had been some really intense fare for a summer weekend afternoon, it had also been a grand introduction to George Benjamin's body of work, right before my next rendez-vous with him on Sunday afternoon.