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A revelation

Roy Thomson Hall
03/07/2015 -  
George Benjamin: Written on Skin
Barbara Hannigan (Agnès), Christopher Purves (The Protector), Bernhard Landauer (Angel 1/The Boy), Krisztina Szabó (Angel 2/Marie), Isaiah Bell (Angel 3/John)
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, George Benjamin (conductor)

B. Landauer, C. Purves & B. Hannigan (© Malcolm Cook)

George Benjamin’s Written on Skin had its premiere at Aix-en-Provence in 2012 and has had productions in seven countries since, not to mention concert performances. This performance was the second one in North America, the first being at the Tanglewood Festival last year.

The Aix Festival wanted a work with a southern French resonance; as a result Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp chose a medieval tale about a troubadore who falls in love with a married woman (and she with him); she goads the lover (in the opera he is a manuscript illuminator) into revealing their affair and the husband takes brutal action. Composer and librettist are well-matched in that neither does warm and cuddly (not really appropriate to the plot anyway). None of the music hearkens back to anything medieval, provençal or troubadoresque. In addition there are anachronistic modern references, such as to car parks, plus the singers voice their own stage directions - e.g., “says the boy” right after the character called The Boy utters a line.

The work begins with a loud, grating passage that the chorus of three angels is forced to sing against. I instantly wished the orchestra were located in a deep, deep pit - but this initial impression was quickly overturned as the work progressed. Even with the 60-piece orchestra on stage, the textures and balances in the score not only allow the singers to be heard but enhance the meaning of what they sing. Some spoken lines are murmured - perhaps we are supposed to be paying attention to the surtitles - a case of further dramatic distancing.

The handling of orchestral forces has many stretches of pure brilliance. The accompaniment in the scene in which Agnès and the boy fall in love, with the use of the glass harmonica, takes the event into a mystic realm. Later on, the music for the gruesome murder is both viscerally effective and utterly original. Benjamin even uses mandolins in a surprising (almost perverse) manner.

One performer who never needs surtitles is the superb Christopher Purves who plays the husband (called “The Protector”). His character is a Bluebeard-type who maintains a brutal rule over his domain (Agnès is just his first wife, however). Both he and Barabara Hannigan originated their roles so it is no surprise they fit them like a glove. As in the two earlier New Creations concerts, Miss Hannigan reveals her immaculate, expressive voice to absolute maximum effect. The third member of the love triangle is The Boy; counter-tenor Bernhard Landauer’s substantial voice holds its own with the other two. Krisztina Szabó amd Isaiah Bell make fine contributions as the commenting angels and as Marie (sister of Agnès) and her husband, John. The semi-staging was adroitly directed by Dan Ayling.

The rapt audience erupted in tumultuous applause.

This was the final of the three New Creations Festival concerts which, among other things, amounted to a triumphant return for Barbara Hannigan. She returns to the TSO next season to sing Mozart arias - and to conduct.

Michael Johnson



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