Sunday, 10 March 2013

Written on Skin

Royal Opera House, 8 March 2013

To the left of the stage, and above: the modern world of the angels.
To the right, the medieval world of the protagonists, one of whom is an angel. From here.
An ambiguous success for a work that might be better suited to a simpler theatrical treatment.

I knew nothing about this opera’s story when I watched this, and until I read the programme, I didn’t understand several important aspects of it.

Does this matter? I was impressed by the work, and willing to accept some things were mysterious, before I understood the creators’ intentions in the bits I didn’t understand. So the opera passed what could be called the Debussy test: I reacted favourably on first experience. 

But I’m not sure that the production can be regarded as a success if it doesn’t make clear what the creators intended.  

Specifically, this is supposed to be a drama managed, or recreated, by angels. A grisly twelfth century Occitan story is presented by these angels, resurrecting two of the three protagonists for our contemporary ‘enjoyment’, with the third protagonist (a boy) taken by another angel. 

I didn’t understand any of this. Better informed, on reflection, I still don’t understand why the stage was split, with the angels operating in our time and sometimes moving in slow motion relative to the re-enacted medieval scenario.

The two contrasting time periods (medieval, real people: contemporary, angels) only seemed to add a level of confusion to the drama, as did the poetic tendency of the medieval characters to talk about themselves in the third person. 

Such self-conscious theatricality isn’t new – it might be as old as Aeschylus – but I don’t see that it adds anything. I suppose it’s necessary to alienate the audience from a horrible event, and librettist Martin Crimp does his best here, given a myth about a man serving his wife the heart of her lover (the boy).

However, we are also well used to horrific acts on stage, and this isn’t especially disturbing. Crimp implicitly accepts this by focussing more on the wife’s rebellion against the order imposed by her husband, also referred to as the Protector. This is signified by her naming. She is the only character to receive a name, and this is clearly a step on her way to self-realisation, as something other than a possession. 

Onto this straightforward but powerful story, Crimp adds layer upon layer of unnecessary metaphor, as if doubting the power of his tale. The boy (and angel) is an illustrator of manuscripts, writing the biography of the protector. The metaphors tumble over one another, from the fall of Eve to the branding of Auschwitz inmates.

It’s all very dense, and the distancing effect of the angels, supposedly detached but in this production dubiously so, obscures rather than enlightens.

Remarkably, Crimp appears to be given priority over the composer, at least in the programme. But George Benjamin’s tasteful, unobtrusive music heightens every aspect of the narrative, and this is a greater achievement. 

The music is refined, by which I mean it is Pelleas-esque, and this makes it less insistent than most music dramas. But it seemed effective at maintaining and improving interest in this otherwise overloaded story.

Apparently the composer wrote with these voices in mind. I suppose this must be close to an ideal realisation of his music. As mentioned above, I've some doubts that Katie Mitchell's direction is a similarly ideal interpretation, but I suspect the work is unlikely to receive a better all-round performance.

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