Their own narrators

from the Times Literary Supplement, 17 August 2012

George Benjamin
Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence

Robin de Raaf
Stadsschouwburg, Amsterdam

George Benjamin and Martin Crimp's first collaboration was a short chamber opera based on the folk tale of the Pied Piper. Following its premiere in Paris in 2006 and a number of subsequent productions in Britain and elsewhere, Into the Little Hill quickly garnered a reputation as one of the most successful recent British operas, with an unlaboured but forceful political message and a notably ambiguous treatment of the idea of music - personified by the figure of the piper - as an agent both of compassion and illusion, powerfully human yet at the same time coldly indifferent. In the marriage between the painstaking craftsmanship of Benjamin's musical idiom and the taut, troubling simplicities of Crimp's text, it also suggested a creative partnership of significant promise.

It took some time before the pair saw eye to eye, Benjamin struggling to adapt to Crimp's insistence on inserting abrasively contemporary, secular terminology into what was supposed to be a time-neutral setting of the myth. The word "concrete" represented a particular sticking point for the famously fastidious composer, who complained he had no idea how one might go about setting such lifeless words. As it turned out, the apparent mismatch between Benjamin's elevated, shimmering musical world and these recurrent signifiers of an everyday marked by dull aesthetic indifference proved to be one of the opera's most fertile tensions. Crimp and Benjamin have much to thank each other for.

Perhaps provocatively, the pair's latest collaboration opens with a chain of references to modern building materials. A full-scale opera this time, commissioned by the Aix-en-Provence festival together with a consortium of European opera houses, the work received its premiere at this year's Aix festival and will resurface in the coming season in London, Amsterdam, Florence and elsewhere. Like the previous work, the opera centres on an ambiguous and mysterious artist figure, although the wandering troubadour-like Stranger of the earlier opera is here transposed to an equally morally ambiguous illustrator and writer, commissioned by a medieval nobleman to make an allegorical manuscript - "a precious object, written on skin" - capable of reflecting and amplifying his worldly authority and heavenly ambition.

The story is adapted from a gruesome Provençal folk tale - a condensed version of which is related by Filostrato during the fourth day of Boccaccio's Decameron - in which a nobleman murders his wife's lover and serves her a supper prepared from the dead man's heart. She eats the dish, is informed of its principal ingredient, and jumps to her death from a high window. The nobleman's comeuppance stems from the two lovers eventually being buried side by side, with verses immortalizing their union.

In Crimp and Benjamin's version, the bloody fable is turned into a far-reaching philosophical parable. The wife's lover, in Boccaccio a nobleman from a neighbouring province, becomes the illustrator, employed by the husband so that his mastery of the arts of writing and drawing may amplify and extend his power. The husband - called "The Protector" - is aware of his environment only insofar as it consists of his property, including his young wife, and conforms to his sense of propriety, enforced with a violence in which he is known to take a particular delight. With the addition to his property of the precious vellum he intends to magnify this sense of propriety. "Do not fault the book", he insists with quiet menace to his visiting brother-in-law, "or you will not pass the black dog at my gate." His insistence contains the seeds of his eventual downfall, and the opera revolves around the Protector's inability to realize that what he seeks to control through writing and idealized representation is in fact governed by interests rooted not in his sense of propriety but in the laws of invention and its implicit thirst for sensual beauty. The precious book becomes the principal instrument of his young bride's awakening, as she sees her likeness take shape on the illustrator's pages and comes to know what it is to lust for another's body, and to love as a free woman. As the situation spirals beyond the Protector's control, destroying the previously unquestioned rule of his authority, his dominion crumbles.

Beyond the messy revenge tragedy, the underlying theme that emerges is the binding of being to its representation in text and narrative, an idea which perhaps owes more to the philosophy of Jacques Derrida than to Boccaccio's morality tale. Certainly the play of textual distance and presence, scrutinized by Derrida in his early study De la Grammatologie, and refracted through the oft-quoted remark to the effect that "il n'y a pas de horstexte" (translated somewhat over-zealously in the first English version of the book as "there is nothing beyond the text", but probably better construed along the more modest lines of "there is nothing without context"), is ubiquitous in the opera, almost to the point of discomfort, and the idea that the "technology of absence" - writing, drawing - is in fact an irrevocable part of our being, is dramatized with an easy clarity and keen drama that the French philosopher might well have envied.

The most conspicuous "distancing" device in the opera, familiar from Into the Little Hill but employed to significantly greater effect, is that the characters are also their own narrators, the roles moving seamlessly between indirect and direct speech as it suits them. The device is also mirrored at a structural level by the way the perspective of the contemporary audience is kept in focus throughout. "Strip out the wires . . . . Force chrome and aluminium back into the earth . . . . Cancel all flights from the international airport and people the sky with angels", commands the Prelude, in a passage whose emphatic violence is only really rediscovered at the end, asking us to peel back the present to examine a distant past characterized by fuller, emotionally richer modes of being. But the process of uncovering is illusory: even at its most visceral and absorbing, the story remains anchored in the conscious perspective of those trying to achieve the uncovering. The technology of representation is visible and audible at all times, principally in the figures of the three "angels" - indifferent visitors simply interested in running a kind of archaeological experiment: the third angel takes the role of the artist for this purpose - and in their tight and unflinching grip on dramatic time.

This "distancing" is particularly apparent in Benjamin's score, which eschews any overt archaisms (beyond the sparing use of a few "exotic" instruments, including glass harmonica and viola da gamba) and never seeks to overcome its compact, tightly ordered modernity in order to attain a fuller or more natural lyricism. Instead it seeks to drive and colour the dramatic action with a kind of relentless dynamism reminiscent of Richard Strauss's Elektra, but without sacrificing its wondrously limpid textures and idiomatic elegance. The modal transpositions between direct and narrated speech in the vocal roles are handled straightforwardly enough, usually turning to shorter, breathier notes for the narrated phrases. But the divisions are not clear-cut and the dry rhythms of phrases such as "— said the woman", work their way into the orchestra before pushing back to the voice with greater intensity.

A good example is the wife Agnès's first moment of aesthetic and sexual awakening on noticing the young stranger in their household and wondering at his purpose. The initially tentative arc traced by her voice gains an increasingly urgent sensuality, as she notices, as if for the first time, the grit beneath her feet, the meaning of her sleeplessness - and the latent potential of the artist's power of invention for her own sense of self. Elsewhere, the entwining of Benjamin's generously laid-out vocal lines map out the changing dynamics of the curious ménage-à-trois, while the orchestra contrives to trace the parallel arcs in which the growing menace shadows the burgeoning beauty. Purely as a musical achievement, the score is probably more impressive than anything Benjamin has composed in the past decade; as an operatic one, in which the energy and wonder of the music drive and inflect the emotional and dramatic landscape, it is an extraordinary work, confirming Benjamin's place among the very front rank of contemporary opera composers.

Katie Mitchell's production, designed by Vicki Mortimer and lit by Jon Clark, also succeeds in doing elegant justice to the work's curious mixture of rampant passion and energy and sharp, clinical sense of control. Mortimer's visually arresting two-storey set is divided between past and present, the angels passing freely between the house of the Protector and the rooms occupied by silent researchers who move, when the focus is away from them, in slow motion. The individual performances are also magnificently in control of the work's uniquely uncanny dramatic atmosphere and strikingly fluid yet taut vocal lines. Both Christopher Purves and Barbara Hannigan give the performances of their lives as the Protector and his wife while the three angels - Bejun Mehta (who plays the artist), Rebecca Jo Loeb and Allan Clayton - are almost as impressive, reflecting perhaps Benjamin's careful preparation of the roles with each particular singer in mind (with the exception of Loeb, who replaces Victoria Simmonds). The Mahler Chamber Orchestra, who played superbly, were conducted by the composer. Though the opera is extraordinary in the degree of its self-consciousness with respect to the limits and freedoms of its medium, the dramatic and musical tension did not flag for a second.

At fifty-two, Benjamin has made a successful career out of doing nothing in a hurry. Even his early masterpiece, Ringed by the Flat Horizon, which blazed a high-profile trail for the twenty-year-old undergraduate composer at its performance during the 1980 Proms season, conveyed a kind of artistry dependent on the patience and maturity necessary to allow a new musical style to fit easily in its own skin. His turn to opera has also been a patient one, and yet Written on Skin, composed pretty much in two years, marks a significant departure for the composer. The score is longer than all his works of the past decade put together; and it has an energetic, unleashed character which suggests that Benjamin, though in many ways a natural miniaturist, has perhaps found his métier in full-scale operatic composition, with the form's demands not simply for strict working deadlines but also for a slight relinquishing of compositional control. As Written on Skin confirms, the marriage of talents and interests with Crimp is a powerful one, perhaps uniquely so. At the same time, one might hope for a more direct libretto in future, in the interests of discovering just how far the composer's creative unbuttoning can go.

In its use of tightly ordered musical tableaux to express a powerful dramatic continuum, Written on Skin bears comparison with another new opera by the Dutch composer and pianist Robin de Raaf which received its premiere in Amsterdam earlier in the summer. Though ostensibly very different in terms of character and subject matter, Waiting for Miss Monroe, composed to an English-language libretto by Janine Brogt, shares an emphasis with Benjamin and Crimp's work on the relation between narrative time and the more immediate time-awareness peculiar to opera. The principal scenes all revolve around the idea of waiting for the actress while she gathers herself together from the fragments left over from former relationships, photographs and past successes and failures. In this respect, although its line on the actress is similar to several other recent attempts to portray Monroe, it also shares with the Benjamin opera its use of devices unique to opera in which to frame the tension between its heroine's sense of self and the construction of this self via external forces and factors beyond her control. Like Agnès, Marilyn is both made and unmade by the brilliance of her reflection, and both operas offer a powerful exploration of the latent tragedy of the self's passing into images beyond its control, and of a subjectivity which depends and thrives on the very thing that destroys it.

Waiting for Miss Monroe is De Raaf's second opera, and suggests a considerable talent for the idiom even if it falls short of real mastery. The music, while never uninteresting and stylistically coherent and varied, often lacks energy, and this filters through into the drama, where the action is also characterized by waiting for something to happen. Nonetheless, it is memorable in many parts, particularly for the final scene in which Monroe, clutching pills and bourbon bottle, tries to warn her younger self (sung by Hendrickje Van Kerckhove) before becoming lost in wonder at her own earlier freshness, in an affecting and troubling duet. In Lotte de Beer's fluid and stylish staging, which cleverly uses film-studio settings to make one ever conscious of the ephemeral nature of the visual environment, the American soprano Laura Aikin gives a tremendously animated, virtuosic performance. Together with Dale Duesing's amiable Fox, and the counter-tenor David DQ Lee's camp but affecting portrayal of Whitey, Monroe's make-up artist, Aikin carried much of the energy, which otherwise threatened to seep out from the Netherland Chamber Orchestra's slightly lacklustre performance in the pit under Steven Sloane.

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