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George Benjamin’s Written on Skin and Into the Little Hill at Mostly Mozart Festival

The lyric tale Into the Little Hill (2006) and the opera Written on Skin (2009-2012), both joint efforts by librettist Martin Crimp and 2015 Mostly Mozart composer-in-residence George Benjamin, and both of which took place the second week of August at the 2015 Mostly Mozart Festival, seem to have sparked a flicker of hope even in the minds of those who prophesy the death of opera and classical music at every opportunity. Both works accomplish an astonishing narrative drive in their tellings of ancient tales accented and enhanced with self-referential dramatic devices, modern yet somehow timeless theatrical features, and musical language both forceful and colorful. The miracle of these two dramatic works, and perhaps the reason for this spark of hope, is the trust Benjamin and Crimp invest in their audience. They have assumed that the spectators are not idiots in need of spoon-fed ideas or intravenously-administered text and music; instead they have assumed that these spectators will be able to digest the densely layered cake of words, sounds, emotions, and images being fed to them. These sumptuous layers of music and narrative were only reinforced by an electric performance by the casts in the Mostly Mozart performances.

In Written on Skin, Benjamin furnishes the listener with music that, like the story it so seamlessly calls forth and even at times seems to enkindle, maintains a wordless power to “snap back the dead to life”—as one of the angels of the opening scene puts it while bustling around a sterile-looking room. The sets in Katie Mitchell’s production emphasize this split between the real and imagined, the past and the present. The two rooms on the left—one upstairs, one downstairs—are sleek, modern, clinical. The two larger rooms on the right are more rustic; the tree growing from the bottom floor through the ceiling and stretching its branches into the top floor only adds to the mystic, fairytale element. In the final act a surreal staircase appears to the far right, allowing the characters to ascend not from downstairs to upstairs but rather from real to imagined, from written experience to rewritten memory.

Written on Skin Act 1 scene. Left to right: Victoria Simmonds, Robert Murray, Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves, Tim Mead – Photo by Richard Termine

Written on Skin Act 1 scene. Left to right: Victoria Simmonds, Robert Murray, Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves, Tim Mead– Photo by Richard Termine

Yet even while the audience is asked (by the angels of the first scene) to more or less suspend its disbelief, the opera itself refuses to do so. In Crimp’s libretto the characters know they’re in a story, denoting the unnatural aspects of opera by singing “says the Boy” at the end of lines and by singing words describing actions not taking place on the stage. The conflation of the natural with the supernatural is emphasized by this disjunct between the seen and heard, between the written, the read, the imagined, the sung, and the enacted. Benjamin’s music, too, acknowledges the strangeness of the form by piercing, thrumming, and scraping out its own embodiment of the characters’ plights. The score calls for the natural (pebbles), the unnatural (typewriters), the expected (winds, strings), and the unexpected (glass harmonica, viola da gamba, violins doubling on mandolins). The music itself, performed brilliantly by conductor Alan Gilbert and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, ballooned into its own layer of storytelling through slow-motion twinkles and shards of clacking percussion, searing strings, and the integration of these more “exotic” sounds at key dramatic moments.

The three characters who have come back to life were portrayed flawlessly by Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves, and Tim Mead. Tim Mead, as the Angel/Boy, feeds life into the illiterate Agnès, whose husband The Protector (Purves) has hired the Boy to write and illustrate a book about his family. As the betrayal, jealousy, and sexual desperation accumulated, the themes of illumination, ownership, purity, and memories both written and rewritten emerged through the singers’ skillful growls, yelps, and leaps, through the low drums beating out an irregular heartbeat beneath them, and through exquisite lines like “All night I can hear her eyelashes scrape the pillow” and “We’ll push our love into that man’s eye like a hot needle”. Barbara Hannigan in particular deserves the highest praise for a performance that was acrobatic not only musically but dramatically and emotionally.

Written on Skin Act 3 scene: Bottom right corner, left to right: Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves – Photo by Richard Termine

Written on Skin Act 3 scene: Bottom right corner, left to right: Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves– Photo by Richard Termine

Similarly praiseworthy are Hila Plitmann and Susan Bickley, whose concert performance of Into the Little Hill required them not to embody a single revivified character but rather to slide in and out of roles, at one moment giving voice to the thoughts inside the minister’s head, at others singing conversations between minister and crowd, mother and child, minister and stranger. Their voices chimed and reverberated like two beautiful yet infinitesimally dissonantly different bells. In a sharp contrast with the suspend-your-disbelief disclaimer introducing Written on Skin, the beginning of Into the Little Hill plunged us immediately into a fictitious world of moral judgment and violence. Similarly to Written on Skin, however, the meticulous blending of music with narrative was paired with a disjunct in what was heard and what was seen (for example, the line “smiles the minister” sung by an unsmiling singer). The musical layers—hissing and humming vocalists, tiptoeing cimbalom, twanging banjo, tottering basset-horns—evoked Crimp’s retelling of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. (The librettos of both this retelling and Written on Skin seem to prove that new opera doesn’t need to rely on the death of a celebrity to succeed: rats, power plays, and the tried and true theme of adultery will do just fine.)

The International Contemporary Ensemble, an annual highlight of the Mostly Mozart Festival in addition to their incredible work around the globe the rest of the year, was conducted by Benjamin himself in their stunning performance. Prior to Into the Little Hill, they were joined by the sensitive and sensible pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard for a doozy concerto double feature: Messiaen’s bantering, chaotically virtuosic Oiseaux Exotiques and Ligeti’s knotty, roving, just-as-virtuosic piano concerto. This was a memorable concert, notable not just for commendable programming but for such a thoughtful rendering of Benjamin’s and Crimp’s thought-provoking work. Their uncompromising and uncondescending approach to the form has gracefully demonstrated what musical drama can be when it refuses to be reduced to spectacle.