Opera Profile: George Benjamin’s ‘Written on Skin’

By Gillian Reinhard
(Credit: Steven Pisano)

“Written on Skin” is considered by some to be British composer George Benjamin’s masterpiece and one of the most important works of the 21st Century.

The opera, which was written by Martin Crimp, first premiered July 7th, 2012 at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Led by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, the piece was an instant success, lauded for its mysterious and unique sound.

Just a year later, Benjamin brought the opera to the Royal Opera House and the Opéra-Comique. More recently, it has been seen at the Philadelphia Opera. The premiere cast saw Barbara Hannigan and Christopher Purves star.

Thematically, the opera is a story of violence and the powerlessness of women in the Middle Ages. Throughout the work, choruses of angels ruminate on God, the Bible, and the tendency of destruction in humans.

Short Plot Summary

“Written on Skin” is divided into three parts and fifteen scenes, with much of the plot driven by the chorus, which also acts as the narrator. Scene one begins with the chorus of angels, who give the setting as 800 years ago (when books were written on the skin of animals).

The chorus also introduces the protagonists—the Protector, his wife Agnès, and the Boy. The Protector enlists the Boy to create a laudatory biography of himself. As the Boy continues working on the book, moving into the Protector’s home, Agnès has become emotionally withdrawn.

Agnès engages in an affair with the Boy. When the Protector asks the Boy about the nature of the affair, he lies to protect Agnès and is encouraged by her to ruin the story of the Protector he has been hired to create.

The Protector discovers the Boy’s affair with Agnès and murders him in revenge. After the Protector tortures Agnès for her infidelity, she commits suicide. 

Watch and Listen

Here is a performance from the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence.



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