George Benjamin Written on Skin [text by Martin Crimp]

Editor's Choice in BBC Music Magazine June 2013

'George Benjamin's electrifying opera is captured magnificently on disc...On every level it's masterly'. Ivan Hewett, BBC Music Magazine

Written on Skin is the second collaboration between George Benjamin and Martin Crimp. Their previous One Act Opera Into The Little Hill has been received with universal acclaim. Written on Skin was jointly commissioned by The Festival d Aix-en-Provence and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and this recording was taken from the premiere in July 2012 at Aix-en-Provence conducted by the composer. George Benjamin’s status as one of the UK’s leading composers has created unprecedented demand for the new opera.

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'An essential record of George Benjamin’s “Written on Skin,” one of the most (more pessimistically: one of the only) unforgettable operas of the last decade or two, a work that seems both old-fashioned and fresh. Timeless, more like it. With a virtuosic cast and its composer leading a committed orchestral reading, it takes its rightful place among the classics.' Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times, December 2013

'An unmissable major operatic event for contemporary British music by one of its greatest exponents.' Mark Sealey,

‘The dark spirit of the drama is impressively sustained throughout the recording, with the five singers giving their all and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra relishing he music’s startlingly distinctive range of colours and textures.This is music of formidable self-assurance, performed and recorded with matching conviction.’ Arnold Whittall, Gramophone, May 2013

'Written on Skin, a bolder statement than anything he has tried before'. David Gutman, International Record Review, April 2013

'Rarely has a contemporary opera made such an impact as George Benjamin's Written on Skin' BBC Music Magazine Awards, Winner of Premiere Award 2014

'Benjamin's latest opera features cannibalism, suicide, sex and murder, and could be a watershed moment – unleashing the expressivity of one of Britain's most essential. The visceral human passion and drama of his largest work to date, the opera Written on Skin, with a text by Martin Crimp, receives its British premiere at Covent Garden in March. To coincide with the London premiere, Nimbus is releasing a CD of the world premiere at Aix-en-Provence last summer; having heard it, what's so striking about the opera is how Benjamin finds both a rigorous economy and expressive violence in his music, which does justice to the opera's stylised storytelling and its unflinching emotional struggles. There are also some astonishing orchestral colours – a glass harmonica, viola da gamba – that make Written on Skin an essential experience, even recorded. Written on Skin might not just be a watershed for Benjamin's music (and the realisation of his lifelong dream of writing for the Royal Opera House), but for British opera as a whole.' Tom Service, The Guardian, Monday 25th February 2013

'Working with Martin Crimp seems to have stimulated Benjamin to new levels of creativity. Although Written on Skin is stylized and abstract, it is inherently dramatic on its own terms. Dare I say it, but I do feel that this will be one of the defining operas of the early 21st century, because it is so visionary.' Anne Ozorio, Opera Today, March 2013

'Written on Skin is strident, tender, lyrical, quietly rhetorical, very human, humane, gripping, beautiful of sound, delicate and potentially quiescent, unflinching, and alarmingly sinewy. The singing styles, the orchestral textures and colours, the pace, the dramatic focus, all vary in exact concord with the story and its important (underlying) ideas and ideals. Benjamin truly shows himself an expert at this, binding himself to a contemporary idiom which is both approachable and upliftingly unique.

There is nothing coy about Written on Skin. This confidence on the part of composer and librettist - although Crimp doesn't like that term - do indeed indicate qualities of an enduring masterpiece, as some reaction has suggested the work will become. It may well be following Ringed By the Flat Horizon from 1980 - at the start of Benjamin's career - which speedily became a staple and a 'classic'.

The story, the characterisations, the tensions, the outcomes and what the legend can teach us about life are all highly accessible in this attractively-priced CD set from Nimbus. The principals are all strong and obviously completely at one with Benjamin's conception. Their delivery strikes a perfect balance between detachment and the inevitable emotions resulting from the events they portray.

Crimp's text is poetic: both lyrical and direct. The perfect vehicle for the taut, tightly-scored music which Benjamin has made one with it in Written on Skin. It's beautiful music and full of variety in tempi, pace, orchestral colour and density. The tones will remain with you after listening in ways similar to those experienced in Berg's operas. Written on Skin has been compared with Lulu and Wozzeck - though for its lyricism less than its angularity. The destructive Angst is there too.

The acoustic of the Grand Théâtre de Provence is not over-resonant. The Nimbus engineers have captured the performances over two nights there during its première run in a way that does the work complete justice. It does, in fact, sound less staged than live recordings can. There’s very little stage noise, next to no discernible audience reaction - only applause at the end of the Duet. Our attention is always on the people, their perplexities, failings, failures, weaknesses - and perhaps implied strengths.

The two booklets which come with the CDs have much useful material by and about those involved including a very illuminating interview with Benjamin. There are the usual illustrated bios of the performers, background and the full text, with a synopsis.

Given the length of the opera, Nimbus has also included Benjamin's Duet for Piano and Orchestra with the same forces and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, recorded at the same time. This lasts just over ten minutes and displays the energy, originality and urgent sense of life which we expect from this composer. It's neither virtuosic nor adversarial. Rather, it explores the colours, tendencies and characteristics which the orchestra's and the piano's palettes have in common; and how these can contribute to an integrated musical experience. Aimard's playing is predictably impeccable with generosity and reserve in equal measure.

If any combination of contemporary British music, opera and/or George Benjamin's admirable output is of even minimal interest to you, then this is a release that you will not want to miss. The music is beautiful and central in style and theme to the worlds to which it makes such a valuable contribution. Unsurprisingly the performances are clear, clean and persuasive. After you've been suitably heartened that contemporary music, and contemporary opera at that, can be conceived, performed and received as well as this, you'll also be left with a work of immense value in its own right.' Mark Sealey,, May 2013

'The occasion when we sang through George Benjamin’s new masterpiece, Written on Skin, with the incomparable Mahler Chamber Orchestra was one such. The sound world that this one, albeit brilliant, man had created was truly awe-inspiring, so utterly unique, that even the hardest of us all were reduced to tears. To witness at first hand the incredible genius of the orchestral players as they swooped and scaled the demanding writing as though it really was a walk in the park was humbling.' Christopher Purves, Musician’s Diary, Gramophone January 2013

'For virtually every opera lover, there is at least one opera at the première of which he or she longs to have been present, whether it is in order to have enjoyed an opportunity to hear a favorite part sung by its original interpreter or simply to witness the birth of a great work of operatic art. In some instances, there would also have been the unique opportunity of hearing a score conducted by its creator. The enterprising people at Nimbus have granted 21st-Century opera lovers an extraordinary opportunity to become acquainted with one of the finest operas of the new millennium, recorded during its première production at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence and conducted—masterfully—by its composer, George Benjamin.

The première of an opera by George Benjamin, was a genuine musical event and one that, considering Nimbus’s prior dedication to the music of George Benjamin, seemed destined for recording. Nimbus must be congratulated for continuing their Benjamin series with this superbly-engineered and handsomely-presented recording of Written on Skin. Rather than offering the consumer a poor value with only the ninety minutes of the opera spread across the two compact discs, Nimbus also include a first-rate performance of Mr. Benjamin’s Duet for Piano and Orchestra with Pierre-Laurent Aimard at the piano, playing with his accustomed depth of feeling and unfettered virtuosity.

Much praise has been lavished on Written on Skin in the press, particularly in Britain, and the score heard on this recording largely justifies the acclaim. Mr. Benjamin’s music gives evidence of a very individual voice, neither bound by nor dismissive of conventional tonality. Written on Skin is very much an opera of the 21st Century, but some of the most effective vocal writing in the opera—primarily, the almost indecently sensual exchanges between Agnès and the Boy—conjures a sound world that is very close to those of Nerone and Poppea in Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea or Diana and Endimione in Cavalli’s La Calisto.

Mr. Benjamin’s score is harmonically adventurous but surprisingly accessible, the clearly-defined structures of the music never impeding the composer’s imagination or prohibiting rhapsodic flights of fancy that are in turns violently dissonant and exquisitely lyrical. Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to Mr. Benjamin’s score is the assertion that every bar of his music as heard on this recording is absolutely appropriate to the chameleonic nuances of Martin Crimp’s fascinating libretto, and the sounds that Mr. Benjamin coaxes from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra render every bar a stretch of exemplary music-making.

Ms. Hannigan seems a fearless singer, unafraid of pushing the voice to its limits, but she knows her boundaries and creates an impressively three-dimensional character within them. To state that Ms. Hannigan’s artistry has boundaries is not to suggest any deficiencies of technique or acting ability: whereas many singers’ boundaries are significant limitations to the effectiveness of their performances, Ms. Hannigan employs her boundaries as opportunities for artistic expression and growth. In her powerful sultriness, Agnès is an alarming, dangerous woman: such perils would be mere musical sketches and strands of words without the incendiary performance of Ms. Hannigan in this production.

Agnès’s husband, the Protector, is sung by baritone Christopher Purves, a reliably arresting artistic presence whose timbre takes extremely well to singing in English. When moments of tension and violence demand explosions of power, Mr. Purves delivers without hesitation, but there are also passages that draw from him subtle, beautifully-shaded singing. The genius of Mr. Purves’s performance is that it must be virtually impossible for a listener to fail to identify with the Protector on some dark level: there is a certain dignity in Mr. Purves’s singing of the part that commands the listener to reflect as much on what the Protector endures as on what he inflicts. Perhaps the most chilling aural image in the opera is the Protector’s description of the insect-like ‘clicking’ of the sleepless Agnès’s eyelashes against her pillow, and Mr. Purves delivers this passage with the effortless mystery and perfect timing of an accomplished actor. Like Agnès, the Protector traverses a wide tessitura, of which Mr. Purves proves a complete master.

It is difficult to imagine any singer bringing the part of the boy to life more viscerally than Bejun Mehta does in this performance. There is a disarming naïveté in the Boy’s early scenes that draws in everyone involved in both the opera and the performance. This boyish wonderment gives way—most fascinatingly in Mr. Mehta’s performance—to a palpable eroticism, sustained in the undulating music that the Boy shares with Agnès. Vocally, Mr. Mehta is on best form, maintaining firmness of tone and sureness of pitch even when descending into the lowest reaches of his range. Notes above the staff are impressively focused, often displaying strength rivaling that of the best female mezzo-sopranos. There is extraordinary beauty in his singing, he proves a rewardingly versatile performance, singing the Boy’s sinewy music with integrity, charm, and smoky sexiness.

Written on Skin is the sort of opera by which one can be manipulated into as many different emotional responses as the human brain can process even without fully understanding the meaning of the text. The most enduring operas all share certain self-evident truths, however, founded upon examinations of the power and perils of love, the potential of jealousy to precipitate catastrophe, and the unique and universal complexities of relationships among people. Written on Skin approaches these conceits with as much philosophical insight as Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Wagner’s Die Walküre and Verdi’s Otello, and future productions will surely confirm the capacity of Written on Skin to prove a lasting masterwork of 21st-Century opera. A more committed cast than the one assembled for the Aix-en-Provence première cannot be imagined, and the efforts of all involved combine to produce a recording of genuinely great artistic merit.' Joseph Newsome May 2013

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