Written on Skin

Written on Skin
Director: Katie Mitchell
Conductor: Kent Nagano
Writer: Martin Crimp (libretto), George Benjamin (music)
Based on: Guillem de Cabestanh‘s Le coeur mangé (The Eaten Heart)
Cast: Audun Iversen, Barbara Hannigan, Iestyn Davies, Victoria Simmonds, Allan Clayton
Part of: Wiener Festwochen

As angels are rummaging on stage and prepare the set, the Protector (Audun Iversen), a wealthy land owner, asks the Boy (Iestyn Davies) into his home to write and illustrate a book about his accomplishments so far and his bright future, all pretty much embodied by his wife Agnès (Barbara Hannigan). The Boy agrees to do so and Agnès jumps at the chance to not only get love and attention as a woman (instead of a trophy) but also to set the record straight with her husband. So she seduces the Boy and influences his work.

I keep on trying with modern operas, but I’m not really getting there. With this one, at least, I really liked everything but the music.


When the opera started, I was seriously c0nsidering leaving after the first few minutes. That’s how much I hated the music. It was noisy, emphasized exactly the wrong things about brass instrument and lacked harmonies and melodies. And the orchestra was generally too loud for the theater. At one point I actually stuck my fingers in my ears. [I'm really not very music-savvy, but if you don't give me something to hold on to in your music, I won't be interested in learning more, either.]

But I did stick around and I do think that in the end that decision totally paid off. Mostly that’s because of the libretto. The story is interesting and very feminist and Crimp tackles that very nicely and with wonderful lyrics. (I also must admit that it does give me a little thrill to hear “put your fingers in my mouth” and other things that nobody would have put as directly in writing 200 years ago sung opera-style, which is rather ridiculous, but still.) I also really loved the angels/costume people/archaeologists framing and how they interacted with the story actors.


And I loved howthey take the contrast of old and new (the entire thing is based on a very old story, told for new sensibilities, in a very old format – opera – but with obviously modern music) and transports it to the stage. The design itself is brilliant, with one half of the stage being modern, one half fitting with the original story. It did take me a bit to get used to it, but once I did, I really loved it.

It’s just a pity that I found no access point to the music. Since it’s an opera, music is a huge part of the entire thing and when the music doesn’t work, the entire piece doesn’t work. And that is exactly what happened here. (Maybe next time I should actually see that I listen to the music before going to the opera.)


Summarising: I enjoyed it as much as I could without liking the music. I recommend checking it out before. But if it doesn’t send you running for the hills, definitely see it.

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