Review: Illuminating violence gets under my skin in OdM’s Written on Skin

Opéra de Montréal | Place des Arts

Florence Bourget, Magali Simard-Galdès, and Jean-Michel Richer (© Yves-Renaud)

Opéra de Montréal’s new production of 21st century opera Written on Skin is gripping, disturbing and visceral. The brutality of the plot and text may be difficult to “like” but the opera and production are compelling and superbly executed.

The music is composed by George Benjamin with libretto by Martin Crimp. Benjamin (England) is an internationally acclaimed composer and conductor, while Crimp is a prolific and celebrated British playwright. Written on Skin is their second of three operatic collaborations. It premiered in 2012 at the Aix-en-Provence Festival and has captivated audiences and critics since. 

Jean-Michel Richer, Florence Bourget, Luigi-Schifano, and Daniel Okulitch (© Yves-Renaud)

Benjamin’s music is not melodic in the traditional sense, nor is it atonal in a 20th century fashion. It is atmospheric yet dramatic; it compels the emotions of the characters and plot without falling into cliché. It is its own character, both interacting with the others and commenting apart from them. There are hints of medieval polyphony particularly in moments when the Angels sing (the plot is mostly based in the 13th century). The score sounds fascinatingly dense and complicated, but is handled skillfully and confidently by conductor Nicole Paiement, a Canadian making her OdM debut. I hope to see more of her.

Crimp’s libretto is based on the 13th century troubadour legend of Guillem de Cabestaing who cut out the heart of his wife’s lover and fed it to her. It is told as though each character were reading an illuminated medieval manuscript—they are both character and narrator—and thus very metatheatrical. The title refers to a time when manuscripts were made from animal skins, and the idea of inscribing and illuminating on skin and parchment acts as a metaphor throughout the opera.

Daniel Okulitch and Luigi Schifano (© Yves-Renaud)

[Plot spoiler alert.]

The Protector hires the Boy to create an illuminated manuscript that will celebrate his cruelty and narcissism (ok, in the program, it is written “to celebrate his life in a book”, but let’s call it like it is). The Boy and Agnès, the Protector’s wife, have an affair thus setting the de Cabestaing story into motion. Agnès defies her husband and to escape his cruel retribution throws herself out a window to her death.

Agnès is the character around which the opera revolves. She approaches the Boy and takes command of her sexual desires for him. Although she rebels against her husband’s misogyny and cruelty, in the end she is like so many other operatic heroines: her agency and will are robbed and so beaten out of her, that she has no other “choice” but to kill herself. My knowledgeable operatic partner was annoyed and angry. They said, “Just another Lucia 2.0”, although I saw it more as Tosca rebooted, given the jumping off the castle wall.

This creates a dilemma. We both love the music, the staging, the production, as well as the attempt to make it modern and pro-woman: there is text that is anachronistic bringing in modern malls and the like, and at one point the Angels sing about the brutality and hostility against women. However, I still ask the question: why this story? I know I am supposed to walk away and see the human (read male) brutality and cruelty for the malevolence that it is, but it does make me wonder if and when this narrative will change.

Luigi Schifano and Magali Simard-Galdès (© Yves-Renaud)

The singers in this production are exceptional. Magali Simard-Galdès as Agnès has a mellifluous voice that is more than capable of handling the not-so-sweet moments. Her command of the large interval leaps sent chills up the spine. The rich sound of Daniel Okulitch as the Protector and Luigi Schifano’s robust countertenor as Angel 1/The Boy are excellently suited to their characters. The cast is rounded out with Florence Bourget as Angel 2/Marie and Jean-Michel Richer as Angel 3/John, both of whom are also stand-outs. All the cast acted with focus and deliberation, much needed in a production such as this one. With the exception of Schifano, who is from Italy, the entire cast and production team are from Canada. O Canada!

Stage Director Alain Gautier is no stranger to OdM audiences, having directed a number of productions, notably Dead Man Walking a few years back. Like the plot of Written on Skin, his concept and staging oscillate between minimal and realistic, erotically passionate and menacing. The use of actors to move the set, yet stand on stage to watch the action, evoke the oppressive nature of the scenes, in an intriguing contrast to the open height of Olivier Landreville’s sets.

Magali Simard-Galdès (© Yves-Renaud)

Landreville’s falling-apart towers, which wheel in and out for different scenes, suggest bombed out cities: broken concrete with exposed support wires, interiors sadly exposed. Yet the movement of the towers imply siege engines in an ancient battle, at once forbidding and precarious. The two forest scenes have a canopy that looks like animal skin and fur, or perhaps wool. Interestingly, the iconography of St. Agnes (of Rome) is a lamb. Connection? Agnès never appears in the forest scenes, yet it is in the first that the Boy lies to the Protector about his relationship with her, saying he is having an affair with her sister, Marie. In the second forest scene where the Protector kills the Boy, he first feminizes him in his words, then mixes a brutal homoeroticism with the murder. Agnès is physically absent yet ever present in these scenes.

Complimenting and adding to the mise en scène is the lighting of Éric Champoux. His frequent use of dramatic positions emphasize the distorted and stark nature of the story, adding to the disturbing quality of the experience.

Quebec designer Philippe Dubuc’s heavy wool and leather-looking costumes creatively and intelligently contribute to the bleakness and weight of the opera. As the three Angels transform into the characters in the story, they dress in front of the audience, at once revealing their vulnerable bodies to us only to cover up before participating in the scene. In the course of the opera, Agnès strips of her robes. (St. Agnes also is usually depicted in long robes.) First, she removes a cage-like leather corset of sorts, then she removes the sleeves of her dress until finally at her leap to death, she is left in her white under robes, buffeted by two siege towers with the Angels, including her Boy Angel, in attendance at the top of each tower.

Florence Bourget and Jean-Michel Richer (© Yves-Renaud)

Opéra de Montréal presents
Written on Skin
in English with French & English surtitles
January 25 – February 2, 2020
Place des Arts – Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier
Tickets from $30 – 205 | 514.842.2112

Andrew Cuk

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