It often feels as though the age of deathless opera destined to be standard repertoire ended with the death of Britten 40 years ago. But then, very occasionally, you find something like George Benjamin’s Written on Skin and know that all is not lost.
Covent Garden’s new revival was my third encounter with this piece, which made a serious impact on first hearing a few years ago but grows in stature every time it comes back. Pressing all the necessary operatic buttons, its essentially straightforward story – of a love triangle that ends badly – is told with a richness of allusion, resonance and theatre magic that’s spellbinding. The music manages to be exquisitely refined but also pack a punch emotionally. And by the finish (which comes all too soon: the opera’s sole demerit is that it’s not long enough: you want it to go on), the punch is visceral. Not since Billy Budd or maybe Death in Venice has an English opera had so potent a continuing sense of aftershock: a lingering, almost physical disturbance which upsets, exhilarates but somehow cleanses. Like an auditory exorcism.
At the Garden it’s the same production as before, by Katie Mitchell – clever, stylish, but too craftily elaborate to allow the focus that the piece requires – and with much the same cast, led by the extraordinary Barbara Hannigan, who may just qualify as the outstanding singer/actress of her generation.
New, though, is the countertenor Iestyn Davies in the role of the young illustrator of medieval manuscripts who, as the title has it, writes on skin, as well as on the heart of his employer’s wife. He sings magnificently, with projection and dimension of a kind that countertenors rarely manage on a big stage: better than his predecessor in the part. And wrapped around him is a dazzling sound world conjured up by the Royal Opera orchestra conducted by George Benjamin himself. An A-grade start to the new year of opera.
More equivocal was something at the Barbican the following night: a concert staging of Le Grand Macabre by Ligeti.
A raucous, raspberry-blowing piece of operatic eschatology that speaks (not too encouragingly) of the 1970s avant-garde, Macabre has a sort of landmark status and performances are always an event. That this one featured Simon Rattle with the LSO, and Peter Sellars to direct, made it a seriously hot ticket. And in terms of technical bravura it was dazzling: an extremely tough score expertly delivered. But Macabre isn’t great art: it’s a romp that loiters at the brink of tedium unless saved by humour. At the Barbican it barely raised a smile. Enough said.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection