“Written on Skin feels like the work of a genius unleashed.”
– Alex Ross, The New Yorker
Predicted to become “one of the defining operas of the early 21st century” by Opera Today, Nimbus Records’ highly-anticipated world premiere recording of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin will be available in North American on July 9 from Allegro Classical. The recording was captured at the premiere performances at Aix-en-Provence last summer and was released in the UK in March to coincide with the London premiere at the Royal Opera House. Rarely – perhaps never – has a new opera elicited such passionate praise, for Benjamin’s searing score, for Martin Crimp’s enthralling text – which features cannibalism, suicide, sex and murder – and for the extraordinary cast: “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,” said The Guardian, declaring, “Written on Skin might not just be a watershed for Benjamin’s music, but for British opera as a whole.”
Sung in English and an hour and a half in length, Written on Skin’s flawless cast has been hailed as a collective tour de force. Based on the 13th-century Occitan legend of the poet and troubadour Guillem de Cabestany, librettist Martin Crimp transforms the troubadour into a young painter of illuminated manuscripts – The Boy (American countertenor Bejun Mehta in a visceral and beautifully-sung performance) – hired by a wealthy feudal lord – The Protector (the arresting British baritone Christopher Purves) – to produce a glorifying biographical book. Living in their manor, the Boy awakens the repressed passion of the lord’s young wife – Agnes, or The Woman (Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan in an emotionally shattering performance) – and possibly of the brutal Protector himself, as the story proceeds to its almost unbearably intense and powerful end.
Conducted by the composer, Written on Skin is scored for an orchestra of 60 players with some unusual additions including a bass viola de gamba and a glass harmonica. “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 the music’s startlingly distinctive range of colours and textures,” said Arnold Whittall in Gramophone, “This is music of formidable self-assurance, performed and recorded with matching conviction.”
Also included on the recording is Benjamin’s Duet for Piano and Orchestra , performed by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, playing with his signature depth and brilliant virtuosity.