Written on Skin, an opera by British composer George Benjamin, premiered in 2012 in France and later at the Royal Opera House in 2013. This modern take on the operatic form was fascinating to watch and given its uncharacteristic length of just under two hours, made it equally riveting and engaging. The opera brings to us the story of Agnès (played by Magali Simard-Galdès), a gentlewoman who is married to a landowner, the Protector (Daniel Okulitch), who symbolizes the patriarchal, normative ideals of what a male should be. Extremely proud of his place in society, he equates ownership of land and of his family in the same vein.
The Protector commissions a Boy (played brilliantly by Luigi Schifano) to write a book about his family, his great achievements, and his family’s place in paradise, whilst all his enemies be confined to hell. As the Boy begins to write the book, his proximity to Agnès becomes necessary. Agnès challenges him to create not just any woman, but one that is the subject of sexual desire, which results in a consequential indiscretion between the two. But this is not just a physical relationship. This relationship transcends time and space and helps both Agnès and the Boy explore their own emotions and selves, beyond the confines of their current lives.
The story may seem traditionally rooted in jealously, possession, patriarchy, but the piece is uniquely created to read like a poem, being read line by line, introducing it to its audience as if they were reading it individually. This allows for an intrinsically personal engagement with the piece. With some brilliant set design by Olivier Landreville and performances by the entire cast, Written on Skin explores the movement of people from this world to the next, the construct of Paradise, as something distant and separate from us and also the place of women when seen through a man’s prism. I have to point out though, some portions of the piece did veer into uncomfortable terrain, as the Protector physically invaded Agnes’s space and her person. I am all for artistic choices and freedom, but I think such depiction could have easily reverted back to traditional over-dramatic operatic fare.
Written on Skin is playing at Places des Arts on the 28th and 30th January and 2nd February.