Opera serves up hearty drama, critics hunger for more

Mon Mar 11, 2013 11:41am EDT
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By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - "Love is not a picture, love is an act," sings the defiant young woman Agnes during composer George Benjamin and playwright Martin Crimp's gripping new opera, "Written on Skin".

Married at the age of 14 to a brute of a man in 12th century Provencal France, she has her sexual and emotional awakening when her husband brings a footloose, fancy-free young male illuminator of parchments into his home to record the richness of his possessions - including Agnes - for posterity.

It is the classic love triangle but it all comes to a particularly gruesome denouement in this short, steamy new work which had its London premiere on Friday at the Royal Opera House, with four more performances through March 22.

"There isn't a much higher compliment you can pay a new work than wanting to hear it again the moment it has finished," critic Neil Fisher wrote in The Times after opening night.

Rupert Christiansen added in The Daily Telegraph: "It is not often that I've had cause to trumpet such a claim, but here is a new opera that is palpably a serious and important work of art, both exquisitely crafted and deeply resonant."

For this triumph, in his first full-length opera, Benjamin augments the conventional opera orchestra with a glass harmonica to produce shimmering waves of sound, viola da gamba and cow bells for a Provencal and medieval touch, and what may be sleigh bells, though this is no one's idea of a Christmas story.

Bits stick in the head, and for a new opera that's rare.

"Benjamin's greatest success is to use the orchestra both to mine all the sweaty detail from the narrative and to capture its wider, stranger dramatic resonance," Fisher said in a rave review.   Continued...