A MODEST MODERNIST

Written on skin.jpg

This Season: a new work by a "fanatical" craftsman stands out as the highlight for Michael Church 

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2013

For a new opera to be scheduled in six European cities before anyone has heard a note indicates deep trust in the composer. Such was the fate of George Benjamin’s "Written on Skin", premiered at Aix last summer. The ecstatic reviews were no surprise: this modest, reserved 53-year-old Briton may be a Messiaen- and Boulez-trained modernist, but his music has a concentrated intensity that goes to the heart in a way few composers can rival. Yet his output is tiny, and he’s spent whole years beavering away and producing nothing. He blames this on the bewildering freedom composers now have since all the rules were jettisoned, but it’s also to do with his fanatical craftsmanship and the slow burn of his imagination. Giving a medieval Provençal troubadour tale a lurid modern twist, this new opera sees a book-illustrator turn from writing on parchment to inscribing on skin. Echoing Benjamin’s fundamental tenet, the singers remind the audience that this is "not reality". At the Covent Garden premiere he himself will conduct the notable singer-actors he has chosen; meanwhile his last opera, the Pied Piper fable "Into the Little Hill", becomes the first contemporary opera ever to be performed at the austerely classical Wigmore Hall.

Written on Skin ROH, to March 22nd; Little Hill Wigmore Hall, April 6th

CLASSICAL AT A GLANCE

Giulio Cesare (Met, New York, April 4th). The toast of Glyndebourne in 2005, largely thanks to David McVicar’s provocative direction and Robert Jones’s designs. 

Bach Marathon (Royal Albert Hall, London, April Ist; Cité de la musique, Paris, April 6th-7th). John Eliot Gardiner is adept at publicising his Bach, and here he presides over performances by the English Baroque Soloists and his own Monteverdi Choir. Expect audience participation.

Hansel und Gretel (Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, March 24th). This enchanting children’s opera by Humperdinck was staged in 50 theatres in 1893-94, only to fall into oblivion. Richard Jones’s new production should be fascinating.

Michael Church is the classical music critic for the Independent