01 May 2013

CD REVIEW: George Benjamin—WRITTEN ON SKIN (C. Purves, B. Hannigan, B. Mehta, R. J. Loeb, A. Clayton; Nimbus NI 5885/6)

George Benjamin: WRITTEN ON SKIN [Nimbus NI 5885/6]

GEORGE BENJAMIN (born 1960): Written on Skin and Duet for Piano and Orchestra—C. Purves (Protector), B. Hannigan (Agnès), B. IMehta (Angel 1, the Boy), R. J. Loeb (Angel 2, Marie), A. Clayton (Angel 3, John); Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano (in Duet for Piano and Orchestra; Mahler Chamber Orchestra; George Benjamin [Recorded ‘live’ during the world première production at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, July 2012; Nimbus Records NI 5885/6]

For virtually every opera lover, there is at least one opera at the première of which he or she longs to have been present, whether it is in order to have enjoyed an opportunity to hear a favorite part sung by its original interpreter or simply to witness the birth of a great work of operatic art.  In some instances, there would also have been the unique opportunity of hearing a score conducted by its creator.  Musicology and a perusal of the operatic discography reveal that composers have not always proved effective conductors on their own works, as was arguably the case with an artist as insightful and dynamic as Igor Stravinsky.  For English-speaking opera lovers, the gold standard of composers conducting their own operas was established by Benjamin Britten, whose unique interpretations of his operas were recorded by DECCA, with the notable exception of Death in Venice, which was premièred and recorded after the composer was too ill to personally preside.  The most known successor to Britten as composer and conductor is Thomas Adès, but the enterprising people at Nimbus have granted 21st-Century opera lovers an extraordinary opportunity to become acquainted with one of the finest operas of the new millennium, recorded during its première production at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence and conducted—masterfully—by its composer, George Benjamin.

Since the launch of the Nimbus label, the Nimbus name and logo have been synonymous with exceptional quality of both recording and presentation.  An early pioneer in the delicate art of restoring, remastering, and reissuing classic vocal recordings from the era of 78s, Nimbus Records also went to the head of the pack in exploring the historically-appropriate performance practice movement that benefited so greatly from British scholarship, recording early efforts by Caroline Brown’s Hanover Band.  This sense of pursuing the highest orders of musical integrity and sonic brilliance has led Nimbus into unexpected niches.  The première of an opera by George Benjamin, commissioned by a consortium including the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, De Nederlandse Opera, the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, and London’s Royal Opera House, was a genuine musical event and one that, considering Nimbus’s prior dedication to the music of George Benjamin, seemed destined for recording.  It cannot be forgotten that very difficult economic conditions have battered the recording industry as harshly as other segments of the global economy, however, and therefore Nimbus must be congratulated for continuing their Benjamin series with this superbly-engineered and handsomely-presented recording of Written on Skin.  Rather than offering the consumer a poor value with only the ninety minutes of the opera spread across the two compact discs, Nimbus also include a first-rate performance of Mr. Benjamin’s Duet for Piano and Orchestra with Pierre-Laurent Aimard at the piano, playing with his accustomed depth of feeling and unfettered virtuosity.

Much praise has been lavished on Written on Skin in the press, particularly in Britain, and the score heard on this recording largely justifies the acclaim.  Though there are obvious influences of composers past, especially those whose careers were based in the British Isles, Mr. Benjamin’s music gives evidence of a very individual voice, neither bound by nor dismissive of conventional tonality.  Written on Skin is very much an opera of the 21st Century, but some of the most effective vocal writing in the opera—primarily, the almost indecently sensual exchanges between Agnès and the Boy—conjures a sound world that is very close to those of Nerone and Poppea in Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea or Diana and Endimione in Cavalli’s La Calisto.  Instrumental obbligati are prominent in these scenes, also harkening back to Baroque examples and aptly enhancing both dramatic tension and character development.  Mr. Benjamin forms another link with Baroque models by composing the rôle of the Boy for a countertenor voice, exploiting the sensuous timbral possibilities of uniting soprano and alto voices in duet.  Agnès is a wide-ranging soprano part, her preferences for extremities of tessitura—both high and low—in moments of greatest emotional distress recalling Berg’s Lulu.  Her husband, the Protector, both all-knowing and utterly ignorant, is a baritone rôle reminiscent of Wozzeck.  Mr. Benjamin’s score is harmonically adventurous but surprisingly accessible, the clearly-defined structures of the music never impeding the composer’s imagination or prohibiting rhapsodic flights of fancy that are in turns violently dissonant and exquisitely lyrical.  Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to Mr. Benjamin’s score is the assertion that every bar of his music as heard on this recording is absolutely appropriate to the chameleonic nuances of Martin Crimp’s fascinating libretto, and the sounds that Mr. Benjamin coaxes from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra render every bar a stretch of exemplary music-making.

The opera begins with an assessment of humanity by three Angels, all of whom are sung by singers who also take other rôles: Bejun Mehta as Angel 1, Rebecca Jo Loeb as Angel 2, and Allan Clayton as Angel 3.  The skill with which Mr. Benjamin combines the Angels’ voices in ensemble recalls the subgenre of 18th-Century oratorios in which allegorical figures engaged in theological debates, the voices intertwining in celestial harmony despite the very terrestrial nature of their discourse.  Individually, each of the Angels displays an unique perspective, highlighting each respective singer’s eventual assumption of another rôle in the opera.  Mezzo-soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb sings superbly as Angel 2 and Marie, Agnès’s superfluous and emotionally petulant sister.  At first meeting, Marie seems the more headstrong and intellectually alert of the two sisters, an Alpha female who bullies her husband, but she is quickly revealed to be a vacuous figure, morally unformed and easily sidelined.  Marie’s hen-pecked husband John is sung by tenor Allan Clayton, whose also performs the rôle of Angel 3.  Mr. Clayton possesses an uncommonly attractive lyric tenor voice of the sort that one longs to hear as Albert Herring, Peter Quint, and Vaughan Williams’s Hugh the Drover.  The honeyed tone and sublime messa di voce that he brings to his singing in Written on Skin are incredibly compelling.  The only possible criticism of Mr. Clayton’s performance is that, owing to the extent of his music, it does not go on longer.  Both he and Ms. Loeb make excellent use of the prickly words they are given to sing.

Dominated by an imposing husband who satisfies her neither emotionally nor physically, Agnès is, in different ways, a sister to Maeterlinck’s and Debussy’s Mélisande, Bartók’s Judith, and Strauss’s Färberin.  The sincerity of Agnès’s obedience to her husband is quickly revealed to be a sham that masks dangerous intellectual curiosity and freedom.  The scene in which Agnès describes watching as one of her husband’s guards impales an infant in a field of flowers might be interpreted as a representation of symbolic rejection of motherhood akin to the Färberin’s similar sentiments in Die Frau ohne Schatten.  Agnès is a challengingly duplicitous character, on one hand a paradigm of implicitly destructive womanhood as described by the Angels, a progeny of Eve, and from another perspective a sort of proto-Feminist archetype.  Whether she willfully seduces the Boy within the context of his manuscripts as an act of ignominy against her husband or merely plays her part in a predestined exercise of human nature is debatable.  What is beyond doubt is that soprano Barbara Hannigan sings this difficult part with complete conviction and every appearance of comfort in its expansive tessitura.  Ms. Hannigan’s exposed top notes ring with authority and unfailing dead-center placement of pitch and are frequently followed by descents into her lowest register, highlighting the jarring contrasts so tellingly employed by Mr. Benjamin in pursuit of dramatic verisimilitude.  Ms. Hannigan seems a fearless singer, unafraid of pushing the voice to its limits, but she knows her boundaries and creates an impressively three-dimensional character within them.  To state that Ms. Hannigan’s artistry has boundaries is not to suggest any deficiencies of technique or acting ability: whereas many singers’ boundaries are significant limitations to the effectiveness of their performances, Ms. Hannigan employs her boundaries as opportunities for artistic expression and growth.  In her powerful sultriness, Agnès is an alarming, dangerous woman: such perils would be mere musical sketches and strands of words without the incendiary performance of Ms. Hannigan in this production.

Agnès’s husband, the Protector, is sung by baritone Christopher Purves, a reliably arresting artistic presence whose timbre takes extremely well to singing in English.  When moments of tension and violence demand explosions of power, Mr. Purves delivers without hesitation, but there are also passages that draw from him subtle, beautifully-shaded singing.  The Protector is a figure who, despite being central to the opera musically and dramatically, largely remains in the shadows, his motives unclear and his comprehension of his circumstances clouded by what might in a psychological sense be termed insecurity.  Aside from his rôle in what appears to be a brutally, unyieldingly patriarchal social order, neither the sources of his authority nor the nature of his enterprises are meaningfully defined.  Not unlike Agnès’s associations with previous literary and operatic heroines, the Protector breathes the same air as Maeterlinck’s and Debussy’s Golaud and Bartók’s Bluebeard.  He is a brute who threatens murder but is not without emotional depth; a depth of feeling that he seems incapable of understanding or channeling in productive ways.  The genius of Mr. Purves’s performance is that it must be virtually impossible for a listener to fail to identify with the Protector on some dark level: there is a certain dignity in Mr. Purves’s singing of the part that commands the listener to reflect as much on what the Protector endures as on what he inflicts.  Perhaps the most chilling aural image in the opera is the Protector’s description of the insect-like ‘clicking’ of the sleepless Agnès’s eyelashes against her pillow, and Mr. Purves delivers this passage with the effortless mystery and perfect timing of an accomplished actor.  Like Agnès, the Protector traverses a wide tessitura, of which Mr. Purves proves a complete master.  Compelling as Mr. Purves is in his far-reaching repertory, which on records includes a formidably well-sung recent account of the title rôle in Händel’s Saul, this performance reveals this fine artist at the zenith of his abilities.

Inheriting the tradition of Britten’s Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Voice of Apollo in Death in Venice, late-20th-Century and early-21st-Century British composers often include in their operas prominent rôles for the countertenor voice, which since the early Renaissance of male alto singing led in Britain by Sir Alfred Deller and in the United States by Russell Oberlin has progressed, through the work of superb singers such as James Bowman, Paul Esswood, and Michael Chance, to a new generation of gifted countertenors who are as comfortable in opera houses as in concert halls.  Composer Jonathan Dove continued this tradition by writing the rôle of the Refugee in his opera Flight for countertenor, and Thomas Adès contributed to the growing repertory of new music for countertenors with the rôle of Trinculo in The Tempest.  The Angel who metamorphoses into the enigmatic Boy in Written on Skin was also conceived for a countertenor voice, and it is difficult to imagine any singer bringing the part to life more viscerally than Bejun Mehta does in this performance.  Earlier in his career, Mr. Mehta was a boy soprano of uncommon range and technique, so the slightly androgynous quality of Mr. Benjamin’s and Mr. Crimp’s Boy is an apt reminder of Mr. Mehta’s musical origins.  There is also a disarming naïveté in the Boy’s early scenes that draws in everyone involved in both the opera and the performance—the Protector, Agnès, Marie, and the listener.  This boyish wonderment gives way—most fascinatingly in Mr. Mehta’s performance—to a palpable eroticism, sustained in the undulating music that the Boy shares with Agnès; music that recalls the Baroque depictions of sexual pursuit so familiar to Mr. Mehta.  When the Protector cautions Marie to stop her ridicule of the Boy, there is a sense of petty ownership and maddeningly stupid territorialism in his warnings but also a certain hint of simmering homoeroticism.  Mr. Mehta’s Boy intertwines both Agnès and the Protector among his artful fingers, and it is possible to wonder whether a significant impetus for the Protector’s ultimate fury at his wife is a latent jealousy of her having enjoyed what he desired but was denied.  Vocally, Mr. Mehta is on best form, maintaining firmness of tone and sureness of pitch even when descending into the lowest reaches of his range.  Mr. Benjamin’s music mostly keeps Mr. Mehta in the octave in which he is most comfortable, but notes above the staff are impressively focused, often displaying strength rivaling that of the best female mezzo-sopranos.  Mr. Mehta’s timbre is not conventionally beautiful after the manner of a Björling or Tebaldi, but there is extraordinary beauty in his singing.  The virtuosity required by Mr. Benjamin’s music is of an altogether more histrionic nature than that demanded by the Baroque music that Mr. Mehta sings, but he proves a rewardingly versatile performance, singing the Boy’s sinewy music with integrity, charm, and smoky sexiness.

Written on Skin is the sort of opera by which one can be manipulated into as many different emotional responses as the human brain can process even without fully understanding the meaning of the text.  At its heart, the opera seems to be a complicated but also very simple allegory dealing with themes of sexual archetypes, possessiveness, and struggles for intellectual supremacy.  The world created by Mr. Benjamin and Mr. Crimp in Written on Skin is both Medieval and achingly modern, and this dichotomy heightens the impact of the styles of speech with which the characters present themselves, tagging their own comments in the style of works as different—and alike—as morality plays and the dramas of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.  The most enduring operas all share certain self-evident truths, however, founded upon examinations of the power and perils of love, the potential of jealousy to precipitate catastrophe, and the unique and universal complexities of relationships among people.  Written on Skin approaches these conceits with as much philosophical insight as Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Wagner’s Die Walküre and Verdi’s Otello, and future productions will surely confirm the capacity of Written on Skin to prove a lasting masterwork of 21st-Century opera.  A more committed cast than the one assembled for the Aix-en-Provence première cannot be imagined, and the efforts of all involved combine to produce a recording of genuinely great artistic merit.

Barbara Hannigan as Agnès and Bejun Mehta as the Boy in WRITTEN ON SKIN at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence [Photo courtesy of News of the World; photographer uncredited]