A dilettante at large: WRITTEN ON SKIN (Opera Philadelphia)

Marie (mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó)arrives to visit her sister Agnès in WRITTEN ON SKIN. Photo by Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia.
Marie (mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó) arrives to visit her sister Agnès in WRITTEN ON SKIN. Photo by Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia.

What: This is the first in (maybe) a series of reviews of art forms about which I know next to nothing as I step out of my professional comfort zone, theater.

Why: When I read reviews of opera, for example, they are often so technical, so recondite, that I can’t tell if I’d enjoy going to the performance because I don’t know what the critic is talking about.  So this is a review for those who love music and voices and think they might love the whole operatic spectacle without knowing what words like zwischenfach mean. Edith Wharton’s wonderful sneer in her novel, The Age of Innocence, sums up the traditional difficulty: “[it is] an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world… that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English- speaking audiences.”  

First up in this experiment in reviewing: Opera Philadelphia’s WRITTEN ON SKIN, which is written and sung in English with supertitles, you’ll be glad to know. Martin Crimp, a prominent British playwright, known for his violent and painful plays, wrote the engrossing, terrifying libretto based on a medieval tale. George Benjamin wrote the atonal music that becomes another voice, another character in this dark, daring work.   Vocally, musically, visually and conceptually, WRITTEN ON SKIN is thrilling.

The Boy (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) in WRITTEN ON SKIN. Photos by Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia.
The Boy (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) in WRITTEN ON SKIN. Photos by Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia.

It is a fabulous tale of lust and jealousy and murder (read Martin Crimp’s synopsis of his own script here ) as arrogant male power meets ungovernable female power. A chorus of stunning, sexy, black clad angels with white hair, carrying iPads, oversees and comments on the action, “from the margins.”  And once you have angels, it’s a short step to indicting the ultimate male power in the Genesis creation myth: “invent man and drown him,” “bulldoze him screaming into a pit,” and Biblical hostility to women, ‘”invent her/strip her/blame her for everything.”  Crimp has art form comment on art form, with a winking reference to Dante and another to Damien Hirst’s sculpture, his diamond encrusted skull called “For the Love of God.”

Tom Rogers designed the remarkable set, making the stage into a three-dimensional book. It revolves, the angels open it, and, magically, another world is revealed, much like turning an illuminated page. The central pun here is on the word  “illuminated” as in medieval manuscript where the text is highly decorated. Note that the opera’s title refers not to tattoos but to vellum or parchment—animal skins that were the paper of 800 years ago.  But the medieval and contemporary collide in every aspect of this production, and “illuminated” comes to mean a light box as well as an elaborated page. The stage lighting, designed by Howard Hudson, gives us, first, light aslant, then drenches the stage in lurid colors.

But it is the voices that make opera opera, and the central character, Agnes, is played by the ravishing Lauren Snouffer whose soprano is pure and whose diction is immaculate and whose acting is absolutely persuasive. When, in its highest register, her voice unites with the countertenor voice of Anthony Roth Costanzo who sings Boy, the artist of the book and her lover, it is the perfect vocal illustration of their passion. (A countertenor is a cultivated falsetto; it used to depend on castration.) Her tyrannical husband, ironically named Protector, is sung by Mark Stone, a powerful baritone.  All of this gorgeous operatic theatricality is directed by William Kerley.

I must be nuts. To start my dilettante reviewing with a work this strange, this complex, this anticipated as a major cultural event, is high risk. WRITTEN ON SKIN is electrifying. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

[Opera Philadelphia at the Academy of Opera, 240 S. Broad Street] February 9-18, 2018; operaphila.org

Note: If you find this approach interesting/useful/amusing, let me or Phindie’s editor Christopher Munden know, and I’ll move on to another art form—the world’s full of stuff I know nothing about.


4 Replies to “A dilettante at large: WRITTEN ON SKIN (Opera Philadelphia)”
  1. Toby, Arthur and I are flying in from Phoenix and will see it Friday. I would go anywhere just to see Costanzo, but your review makes me feel much better about the airfare. Great first opera review. It’s just musical theater, after all, but on a whole nuther level.

  2. I enjoyed your take on Written on Skin very much and I think the “dilettante” speaks for most of us in the audience, but few of us have your writing skills. How about more about your reaction to the music? Did you enjoy it? Would you play it at home if you had the CD? And had you ever heard a glass harmonica or typewriter in an orchestra before?

    1. Thanks for reading and writing. As you shrewdly see, music is my weak link and thus the lack of discussion of it. But your questions provide ways of talking about it hadn’t thought of–I’ll keep these in mind for the future. As for whether I’ve heard a glass harmonica before, if I did I didn’t know it!

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