Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 14, 2013

Benjamin: Written on Skin

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
August 12, 2013
by Michael J. Moran

The 2013 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music concluded with the U.S. premiere of "Written on Skin," the latest opera by English composer George Benjamin, who also conducted vocal and instrumental Tanglewood Music Center fellows in this concert performance.

The piece is based on the 13th century Provencal story "William of Cabestanh – The Eaten Heart," in which a troubador falls in love with the wife of a king for whom her plays. The opera’s lead character is an illuminator of manuscripts, called "the Boy," who is taken into his home by "the Protector" to produce an illustrated book in celebration of the Protector’s life and good deeds. The other characters are the Protector’s wife, Agnes, her sister, Marie, and Marie’s husband, John. The singers portraying the Boy, Marie, and John also play three angels.

The 15 short scenes of the 90-minute work are performed with only brief pauses between its three acts. The spare and stylized text by English playwright and previous Benjamin collaborator Martin Crimp clearly set the action in the distant past, but the sensitive performances by all five cast members made it easy for a contemporary audience to identify with the characters’ emotions.

Soprano Lauren Snouffer was gut-wrenching as the tortured Agnes, and countertenor Augustine Mercante brilliantly rendered the Boy’s growth from otherworldly innocence to human wisdom. Bass-baritone Evan Hughes balanced the menacing authority of the Protector with bewilderment in the later scenes at his wife’s new independence through love of the Boy. Mezzo-soprano Tammy Coil and tenor Isaiah Bell were versatile and affecting as Marie and John.

The huge orchestra filled every corner of the Ozawa Hall stage, with an expanded percussion section that included a glass harmonica, steel drums, and maracas. The colorful and haunting score both reflected and moved beyond the influence of Benjamin’s teacher Messiaen, from sensuous and exotic harmonies to clashing dissonance. He drew a thrilling and flawless performance from the virtuosic TMC players.

Projections of the text on screens at either side of the stage completed a stellar presentation that earned multiple standing ovations from the modest but enthusiastic audience.