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Tempo / Volume 67 / Issue 265 / July 2013, pp 100 - 100
DOI: 10.1017/S0040298213000636, Published online: 12 July 2013
Link to this article: http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0040298213000636
How to cite this article:
Colin Clarke (2013). Benjamin. Tempo, 67, pp 100-100 doi:10.1017/S0040298213000636
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Downloaded from http://journals.cambridge.org/TEM, IP address: 18.104.22.168 on 21 Apr 2015 http://journals.cambridge.org Downloaded: 21 Apr 2015 IP address: 22.214.171.124 cd and dvd reviews benjamin: Written on Skin1; Duet.2 1Christopher
Purves (The Protector), 1Barbara Hannigan (Agnès), 1Bejun Mehta (Angel 1/The Boy), 1Rebecca Jo Loeb (Angel 2/Marie), 1Allan Clayton (Angel 3/John); 2Pierre-Laurent Aimard (pno); Mahler CO c. George
Benjamin. NIMBUS NI 5885/6 (2-CD set).
George Benjamin and Martin Crimp have collaborated before – on the 2006 chamber opera Into the
Little Hill. Written on Skin, however, is an altogether different proposal. A full-length evening’s opera, based on the 13th-century
Provençal legend ‘Guillem de Cabestanh – La
Coeur Mangë’, it shows Benjamin at his finest.
Set in three acts with pauses between each, no interval and a run time of around 95 minutes, it immediately shows surface affinities with Berg’s
Wozzeck. But Benjamin is very much his own man.
Festival Aix’s director, Bernard Foccroule, commissioned an opera from Benjamin on Provençal themes: hence the setting of 13th-century
Provence (it was Foccroule, also, who suggested a countertenor for the role of the Boy). The story itself is simple but rather grisly: the
Protector, a landowner, commissions the Boy, an artist, to create a manuscript, an illuminated book, to celebrate his glory. The Protector’s longsuffering, humiliated, obedient wife, Agnès, embarks on an affair with the Boy, and in doing so is able to exert influence on the contents of the book; revenge comes in the rather grisly form of serving Agnès the Boy’s heart for dinner.
The multiple scenes set in multiple times (in
Katie Mitchell’s recent Covent Garden production from modern office back to Provence, for example) create an impression that reality is being supervened. To heighten this impression that the normal trajectory of a story is being bent, characters use the third person to refer to themselves; stage directions, too, can be sung.
The result is to distance us from the ongoing drama, heightening the observer’s ability to appreciate the continuing re-contextualisation of scenes in the light of surrounding events. In the
Royal Opera production, the subdividing of the stage into areas for each aspect – a modern office and Provence, outside and inside the Protector’s house – meant that characters could ‘bleed’ effectively from one area to another. Benjamin refers to creating a ‘strangeness’ that ‘creates a space’ for his music (‘Sometime Voices’, quoted in the booklet).
The ‘strangeness’ is palpable, both in the dramaturgical techniques and in the orchestral parts.
His use of a countertenor for the Boy introduces an otherwordly aspect (as, indeed, it did when
Philip Glass called for that voice for the titular role in Akhnaten).
Benjamin’s writing is incredibly sensitive. His orchestra is large, and includes the interesting additions of a bass viola da gamba and glass harmonica. Yet he rarely utilizes the orchestra in anything approaching a tutti; rather there is a
Debussian felicity of textural manipulation. The
Nimbus discs boast the Mahler Chamber
Orchestra, the ensemble Benjamin specifically had in mind. They are more attuned to
Benjamin’s idiom than the orchestra of Covent
Garden in the current UK run (at least in the performance of 11 March 2013), creating tapestries of the utmost beauty. Written on Skin is a remarkable work, caught here on the wing (live, July 2012,
Grand Théâtre de Provence). The frisson is unmistakable. The singers are uniformly excellent, from the purity of Bejun Mehta’s countertenor through Barbara Hannigan’s beautifully human assumption of Agnès and Christopher
Purves’s confident Protector, a reading shot through with lyricism as well as masculinity.
The filler, the 12-minute Duet for piano and orchestra, was commissioned for the 2008
Lucerne Festival and originally written for
Aimard and the Cleveland Orchestra. It is an intriguing piece, starting like a skewed Scarlatti Sonata before attempting to find compatible areas between piano and orchestra. The decision not to include violins in the scoring could be construed as anti-Romantic gesture; certainly the long singleline piano melodies are anti-virtuoso. Perhaps, then, this is a single-movement anti-concerto.
The live performance is magnificent.
Colin Clarke barrett: Dark Matter. Elision and Cikada Ensembles, c. Christian Eggen. NMC D183.
Xenakis is the X Factor galvanizing Dark Matter, though Richard Barrett stresses that ‘it is not in any way a memorial to someone lost to us but
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