Operatoonity.com review: Written on Skin presented by Opera Philadelphia
Live performance: Sunday, February 11, 2:30 p.m.
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Music: George Benjamin
Libretto: Martin Crimp
4.0 out of 5.0 stars
Of all the East Coast opera houses that have premiered contemporary operas, Opera Philadelphia has introduced more than a few compelling, arresting, and culturally and socially profound works and co-productions into today’s canon. I’ve reviewed numerous of those operas, some of the most unforgettable being Cold Mountain (2016), Ainadamar (2014), A Coffin in Egypt (2014), Silent Night (2013), and Dark Sisters (2012).
Their latest premiere, Written on Skin, is brave. The production elements are exquisite, ingeniously designed with a richly beautiful palette of deep blues and burnished golds. The voices are world-class. But unlike some @OperaPhila shows that got under my skin, this Skin left me cold.
The tale at its heart, pun entirely intended, is chilling. A powerful and cruel medieval plunderer and pillager learns his wife (who is no more than goods and chattel to him) is having a consuming love affair. He cuts out her young lover’s heart and feeds it to her. She then throws herself to her death.
It’s a grisly story that makes for good theater and potentially great opera. However, many operatic devices are hardwired into the opera to estrange the reader from fully engaging with it: dissonant, haunting music that is both atonal and arrhythmic; characters referring to themselves in the third person in the narrative to distance themselves and the viewers from the story; a sardonic libretto. Why? I can only assume it’s to make the work less accessible and more artful and to get the viewer to work harder to appreciate and understand it. In a Reader’s Guide written by Dr. Dan Darigan on the style of author Martin Crimp, which @OperaPhila supplied to reviewers, Darigan says, “Written on Skin is an opera that continues to make me think…my appreciation for this opera was not something that set in right away.”
The performances and the production elements are certainly worthy of appreciation—no—hearty accolades. In her @OperaPhila debut as Agnès, soprano Lauren Snouffer was luminous. She sang with a clear shimmering and silvery tone and embracing her role as a dispassionate young wife who awakens into her own skin when she has an affair with the Boy.
Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo sang the Angel and the Boy, who becomes sexually entangled with the Protector’s (wealthy landowner) wife when he is hired to illustrate the Protector’s family history. Roth Costanzo is gloriously talented, investing himself in every role I’ve seen him conquer and is surely one of the finest countertenors singing professionally today. My only issue with his role is one not of his own making. As the Boy, Roth Costanzo enters into a sexual liaison with a married woman. The character name Boy is totally off-putting in this “woke” age. This opera is less than 10 years old and premiered in the U.S. in the throes of the “Me, Too” movement. The implications of a Boy entering into an affair with a grown woman and then having his heart cut out by her murderous husband honestly made my skin crawl.
Naming a lead character the Protector is the greatest irony of this piece. The libretto reveals that the Protector is sacking villages, impaling babies, cutting the hearts out of young men. He places inhuman strictures on his wife as observed from lines such as “No pure woman asks for a kiss. No clean woman asks to be touched,” and then he tells his wife she is “a child.” A child he married and is made to eat her lover’s heart. Mark Stone has a serviceable and sturdy baritone which he pours into his alternately self-aggrandizing, menacing, and murderous character—the sheer embodiment of toxic masculinity. Overall an outstanding performance in a loathsome role.
Only two other roles need mentioned: Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó and tenor Alasdair Kent. Like Roth Costanzo, they each sang two roles, fluidly moving between the essential characters of Marie and John and the ironic Angels, who function like a Greek chorus, commenting on the action rather than advancing it. Each delivered striking turns and earning their wings, especially as the Angels, who were more demons than do-gooders.
The production was beautifully conceived and executed as more futuristic than literal. At one point, the illuminated square pages of the book are writ large on similarly shaped set pieces to suggest the Protector’s story has grown so large as to consume their lives—a pure dead brilliant device. The lighting, the set, the direction, the costumes yielded a seamless integration of effects to haunt and to terrorize.
Before writing this review, I poured through a copy of the libretto, which is artfully crafted. It dares and arrests and challenges in the way one expects from great works and improves upon more careful review. My issues are that the foundational elements have made it nearly impossible to enjoy and virtually inaccessible. By contrast, composer Stephen Schwartz created an opera based on another grisly tale Séance on a Wet Afternoon (my review here), which New York City Opera brought to the East Coast in 2011. The New York cognoscenti dismissed the production for its accessibility. Unlike this production, Séance never tried so hard to be art and offered a much more fulfilling theatrical experience.
I applaud Opera Phila for their derring-do, to bring this kind of work to the mainstage and for an exquisite piece in terms of production values. It’s not a show, however, that made me comfortable in my own skin. They can and have produced works that aren’t merely droll and accessible nor dripping with alienation.