By the Book: Written on Skin at the Opéra de Montréal

Benjamin – Written on Skin

Agnès – Magali Simard-Galdès
The Protector – Daniel Okulitch
Angel 1/The Boy – Luigi Schifano
Angel 2/Marie – Florence Bourget
Angel 3/John – Jean-Michel Richer

Orchestre symphonique de Montréal / Nicole Paiement.
Stage director – Alain Gauthier.

Opéra de Montréal, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Montreal, Quebec.  Saturday, January 25th, 2020.

Following its premiere at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence back in 2012, Written on Skin has taken its place as one of the first real repertoire operas of the twenty-first century.  It’s easy to see its appeal – the story of a woman standing up to a domineering husband and an illicit love affair, framed by music that offers constantly evolving sonic vistas and, despite some wide leaps, remains generally quite singable.  For its first performance in Quebec and Canada, the enterprising Opéra de Montréal assembled a cast of Quebecois, Canadian and Italian singers led by the experienced contemporary music conductor, Nicole Paiement.  Alain Gauthier, making his first appearance back on this stage since his Elektra in 2015, was entrusted with the stage direction.

Photo : © Opéra de Montréal/Yves Renaud

I feel that I must be one of the few Europe-based writers on opera to have not actually seen this work yet.  I did see George Benjamin and Martin Crimp’s more recent collaboration, Lessons in Love and Violence, at its premiere in London, England in 2018.  I left tonight with a similar impression to that later work.  One overriding impression is Benjamin’s word setting.  It struck me again that, over the course of the 93-minute running time, there was a predictability to the word setting that left me longing for him to mix it up a bit.  As the Opéra de Montréal offers bilingual French-English surtitles, after a while, one could reasonably predict how the vocal line was going to go.  It must be said that the diction throughout the cast was superb.  Benjamin is clearly a master of orchestral writing, the work is shrouded in misty harmonic vistas, textures piling up on each other, yet rarely bursting out into violence – the desperation felt by individuals brought out by the singing characters indulging in wide leaps.  Instead, he gives us tender, transparent orchestral textures, with peppery cimbalom, or the ghostly halo of a glass harmonica giving the orchestral sound an otherworldly eeriness.  Crimp’s libretto seems rather self-conscious – the framing device of the Angels referring from the modern day to the past made for an effective setting-up of the drama, but having the characters referring to themselves in the third person felt that it added an unnecessary distancing to what is a rather gruesome story.

Photo : © Opéra de Montréal/Yves Renaud

Gauthier’s staging takes the libretto very much on face value, illustrating it rather than digging underneath for deeper meaning.  He uses four tall platforms that are wheeled around the stage to add visual interest, while a central platform is pushed forward from the rear of the stage as the story itself begins, and pushed back when it ends.  The action of the main story takes place on this platform.  Gauthier certainly makes much of little – a table and two benches are used to also to turn into the Protector and Agnès’s marital bed.  Similarly, one of the tall platforms is also used as a writing room for the Boy, up to which Agnès ascends via a spiral staircase.  I found it an effective way of illustrating the Boy’s separateness, as well as his links to the Angels.  With a staging as literal as this, fortunately personenregie avoided any stock operatic gestures of looking to the front with arms outstretched, but instead, focused on mining the chemistry between characters, who were clearly living, breathing individuals.  There was one non sequitur that I wasn’t quite convinced by.  In her first encounter alone with the Boy, Agnès quite literally throws off the chains she was wearing around her body, clearly symbolizing her breaking the dominance of the Protector. Yet, in subsequent scenes, there seems to be no reference to this from the Protector, no explicitly apparent awareness of Agnès’s sexual awakening.  Otherwise, this was a fluent and intelligent staging, one that allowed the music and drama to evolve organically.

Photo : © Opéra de Montréal/Yves Renaud

As indeed did Paiement’s conducting.  Paiement led the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal in a reading of delicate transparency, one that revelled in Benjamin’s soundworld.  Always supportive to her singers she, and her orchestra, gave us playing that was alive to the quicksilver changes of texture that abound in the work.  Some scrappiness in the violins at times betrayed the limited rehearsal of this unfamiliar work, yet the sensuality that they brought to the hazy dreaminess of the score was a reminder of their excellence in the French repertoire.  The trumpets, at times menacing, at others heralding other realms, were on excellent form.  As indeed was the percussion, offering playing of staggering rhythmic accuracy.

Photo : © Opéra de Montréal/Yves Renaud

In the central role of Agnès, Magali Simard-Galdès gave an announcement of an exciting talent.  Hers is a soprano of diamantine brilliance, with an easy top blessed with a pleasing, natural vibrato.  She brought out both searing ecstasy and threats of danger in her fearless vocalism.  The bottom is slightly narrow but the way that the voice shimmers, seemingly carrying on the air, is impressive.  Certainly, an artist I would very much like to hear again.  Daniel Okulitch sang the Protector in a masculine, craggy baritone with remarkable ease on top.  His diction was impeccable, every single word sung off the text.  He portrayed the Protector’s gradual breakdown with striking immediacy, filling the tone out yet never compromising its beauty or integrity.

Photo : © Opéra de Montréal/Yves Renaud

As the Boy and the Angel, Luigi Schifano sang his music in a wonderfully warm and rounded countertenor, one that carried easily through this relatively large house.  What struck me, in particular, was the evenness of his registers, from a robust baritone at the bottom to a top that took wing with a delightful fullness of tone.  Jean-Michel Richer sang his roles in a handsome lyric tenor, one that, with its easy mellifluousness and textual awareness, should be ideally matched with some of the central Britten roles.  Florence Bourget, a member of the Opéra’s training program, the Atelier Lyrique, brought a youthful, well-schooled mezzo to her roles.

Photo : © Opéra de Montréal/Yves Renaud

Tonight’s performance was a credit to the house’s enterprising nature – and the gamble paid off with a capacity audience rewarding the cast with a generous ovation.  That a contemporary opera can fill up a hall this size, be performed at a very high level, and be warmly received by the audience is certainly a reason for celebration.  It was extremely well sung, well played and conducted by the assembled forces.  The staging was logical, even if I wish it had dug a little deeper below the surface.  Still, tonight proved that opera is flourishing in Montreal.

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