Opera houses feel, quite rightly, that they are in duty bound to mount new works; if they didn't they would not get subsidies. But what about the quality of the new works performed? Maw, Maazel, Caligula, Turnage, Birtwistle? Not a great deal of musical worth there for the majority of true music lovers.
And now we have five performances of Written on Skin by George Benjamin (b.1960) a co-commission and production with Covent Garden and no less than four other opera houses, Aix-en-Provence, Amsterdam, Toulouse and Florence, a rare honour and outlook for a composer (and a % for his agent!). The text is by Martin Crimp and the plot is about a book which you might think a bit weird for an opera. It is based on an old legend from Occitan (yes, the same name Provence as the firm that nowadays makes intriguing scents.)
The protagonists are: a so-called Protector, a wealthy landowner addicted to purity and violence who considers his wife Agnes 'his property' (but she doesn't) – thoroughly non P.C. but the action takes place 800 years ago. There is a chorus of Angels and a Boy (on stage he looked middle-aged and sang like a counter-tenor). There is quite a lot of sexual shenanigans; the Boy gets murdered and Agnes suicides. The text is not very appealing and the music matches it. The score does not frighten the horses but seems to have no particular character, quite violent at times (not always parallel with the words) music neither didactic, systematic, nor melodic or pleasure seeking, e.g. neither serial nor cereal.
The action was busy, supers dressing and undressing the landowner frequently, much scuttling round the bed. I asked my companion why the supers on the first floor kept on moving about in slow motion. She said 'that’s modern, you know'. Good set by Vivki Mortimer and the production seemed to fit the action which was frequently punctuated by light changes to indicate a new scene. There was no interval; the opera was in three parts, 15 scenes, two hours duration. The audience applauded generously (as they always do these days, my booing was not audible).
Cast: the Protector – Christopher Pruves, the Boy – Bejun Mehta, Agnes – Barbara Hannigan; the composer conducted.