George Benjamin’s new opera is based on the strange and brutal 13th-century Provençal tale Le Coeur Mangê, in which an unnamed ruler (The Protector) asks an illuminator (The Boy) to glorify his power for perpetuity in a book. The Boy’s presence awakens the sexual independence of The Protector’s wife (Agnes), and their subsequent affair leads to the murder of The Boy. In a grisly dénouement, The Protector forces his wife to eat The Boy’s heart, after which she jumps from a window to avoid a similar fate. In order to allow the contemporary world to “bleed through”, British playwright Martin Crimp has added three “angels” who manipulate the drama as if conducting an experiment and double as subsidiary characters. It’s a brilliant conceit that produces a satisfyingly tight piece of musical theatre matched in intellectual rigor by Benjamin’s razor-sharp score.
Crimp ingeniously mixes direct speech with characters narrating their own actions, which lends the recording a special clarity, as you are frequently aware of what a character is doing or thinking. Benjamin uses his orchestra (in this instance the peerless Mahler Chamber Orchestra) with enormous imagination and sensitivity to evoke the musical world of the medieval illuminator. Bass viola da gamba and glass harmonica make a terrific impact at key points.
The handpicked soloists couldn’t be bettered, allowing every word and emotional nuance to shine though. Christopher Purves brings out the cruel ambiguities of The Protector in a performance of gripping intensity. Barbara Hannigan and countertenor Bejun Mehta are riveting throughout, their voices intertwining in their psycho-erotic game-playing. If, as some have said, Written On Skin represents the future of the artform, I for one will be happy to go along for the ride.