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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Written on Skin at Tanglewood Music Center

    Written on Skin, Opera in Three Parts
    Music by George Benjamin
    Libretto by Martin Crimp, after the anonimous 13th century razo "Guillem de Cabestanh - Le Coeur Mangé"
    Composed -2009-2012
    World Premiere - July 2012, Aix-en-Provence, France

    US Premiere:
    Florence Gould Auditorium, Seiji Ozawa Hall
    August 12, 2013 (this review is of this performance)

    Tanglewood Music Center of the Boston Symphony Orchestra
    Festival of Contemporary Music 2013
    Concert Performance, sung in English, with English supertitles

    Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
    Conductor: George Benjamin

    Cast
    Agnès: Lauren Snouffer, soprano
    Protector: Evan Hughes, bass-baritone (guest artist)
    Angel 1/Boy: Augustine Mercante, countertenor
    Angel 2/Marie: Tammy Coil, mezzo-soprano
    Angel 3/John: Isaiah Bell, tenor

    -------

    "What can an opera do for us today? Very simple I think: move you... enchant... stir you... thrill you... just like four hundred years ago except we have to find new ways of doing it." George Benjamin, opera composer

    "Written on Skin - Opera's New Masterpiece - If opera is a dead art form, somebody forgot to tell George Benjamin." Mike Silverman, critic, Associated Press

    -------

    What event would qualify as the most important operatic happening of the 2013-2014 season in the United States? Maybe the world premiere of Oscar in Santa Fe? No. The opera is good, but not great. The Metropolitan Opera opening night featuring Eugene Onegin with Anna Netrebko? Hardly. Similar occasions happen year after year. The various performances of operas by Britten, Verdi, and Wagner to celebrate these composers centennial and bicentennials? There is nothing unique about them - they've happened all over the world.

    I'd rather say, the US premiere of the most sublime opera composed in the last several decades, Written on Skin by George Benjamin, conducted by the composer himself. Is it too bold a claim to make? Not at all. Let us think about it for a moment. Wouldn't you all agree that the top moment of the 1910-1911 season was the world premiere of Puccini's La Fanciulla del West at the Metropolitan Opera? Well, even though the conductor was none less than Arturo Toscanini, it wasn't Puccini himself. Now, when we look back at the 20th century, there aren't many opera lovers and scholars who wouldn't list Puccini as belonging to a handful of the best composers of the century - together with a few others like Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten, Alban Berg, Stravinsky...

    I am absolutely convinced that music lovers and scholars in the 22nd century will look back at the 21st century and list George Benjamin among a similar handful of the best composers of the century, while heralding Written on Skin as the first true masterpiece of the century. It boasts an inventive score of the highest degree of precision and beautiful tone-painting, there is great pace and dramatic impact, its libretto is terrific and with enormous literary value... in summary, this opera is just perfect. George's piece is by far the most impressive work composed in this century, miles ahead of the competition. I'd say that L'Amour de Loin by Saariaho might compete, but it premiered in the very last year of the 20th century. However, Ms. Saariaho continues to compose, and she will likely qualify with Benjamin in that select list of best 21st century opera composers. Another one would have been Sciarrino's Luci mie traditrici. Alas, it was composed in 1998. Similarly, since Mr. Sciarrino is also alive and active, he'll be keeping company with Saariaho and Benjamin. Then, we'll see. Other candidates have never impressed me as much. Don't read me wrong, there are plenty of talented composers around, and worthy contemporary operas - just, not as good as Written on Skin.

    Rest assured that I'm not alone in this assessment. Literally dozens of reviewers from all sorts of newspapers and magazines agree with me (Le Monde, Le Figaro, The New Yorker, The Guardian, etc.), after the opera's smashing success throughout Europe, where it has received sold out performances at prestigious houses such as the ROH Covent Garden, the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, the DNO in Amsterdam, and the Theater an den Wien in Vienna, with an upcoming performance scheduled for L'Opéra-Comique in Paris (November 16-18-19, 2013), as well as a return to the Royal Opera House, and in the relatively near future, Toronto and New York. In its first 13 months of existence the opera has already received eight productions, a feat almost unheard of, in contemporary opera.

    So, the most respected work of the 21st century so far (and even though the century is still young, I'm quite sure this opera will retain this title for a very long time) comes to America for the first time under the baton of the composer himself - if this doesn't qualify as the most important operatic event of the season, I don't see what else would.

    Given that this performance was a single one, a privileged few snatched the seats of the sold-out Seiji Ozawa Hall in the beautiful Tanglewood campus, and witnessed history - this writer, luckly, among them, and thankfully, on the very first row, mere yards away from the composer/conductor and the soloists.

    Opera Lively has given the most extensive coverage to this opera we've ever provided to any other work to date, made so far of three pieces: a thread revieweing the world premiere in Aix-en-Provence through a Medici TV broadcast, containing extensive information about the opera, which can be consulted [here], an exclusive and very interesting interview with George Benjamin [here], and a no less interesting exclusive interview with the amazingly multi-talented and beautiful soprano Barbara Hannigan who created the leading role of Agnès, [here].

    We are not done. In addition to this present review, we've made arrangements to also talk with the young soloists who sang the US premiere, to focus on their experience of being directly coached by George Benjamin, and on how they feel about having had the privilege of bringing this sensational piece for the first time to the American public. This article will be coming to Opera Lively in the next few days.

    In this review, I won't be addressing the opera in detail, simply because it is not necessary to repeat it all here, given that in the three links included above, we did just that. If our readers check out the long thread about the Aix-en-Provence performance, the initial review and subsequent comments do have observations about the opera and other Benjamin works, and in the questions asked of the composer and his lead soprano in our exclusive interviews we also insert comments about specific musical moments.

    So, being brief and to the point, how was this performance, tonight? In two simple words, surprisingly good. We got young artists as instrumentalists (with a few exceptions - a more senior musician took care of the glass harmonica, given that it is difficult to find musicians who can play this exquisite instrument) - and as soloists. The original cast that premiered the work was so incredibly good - with the principal trio being made of hugely talented Bejun Mehta, Barbara Hannigan, and Christopher Purves, that I was apprehensive for the ability of these youngsters to tackle this difficult score. Besides, the productions running throughout Europe are fully staged - and very exquisitely so - by Katie Mitchell (see our thread above mentioned, for details and review), while the US premiere was a concert performance.

    Regardless, this piece is so beautiful both in music and in text, that the concert was still a goose-bumping experience. Some unique features for me, as compared to the gorgeous full stagin in Aix-en-Provence, were the opportunity to see up-close George's energetic conducting, and to listen to the glass harmonica a few yards away, as well as being able to see how each section of the orchestra produced the intriguing sounds of this outstanding score.

    All five young soloists who are current Tanglewood fellows except for Evan Hughes who is former fellow, did a fabulous job. All five were good singers who delivered the vocal lines with passion, power, fury, and emotion. I am quite sure that they felt the force of this work even more than the audience. They seemed quite thrilled themselves for being part of this.

    Countertenor Augustine Mercante drew the most applause from the audience, and deservedly so. He hails from Wilmington, DE, and as a 2010 Fullbright Scholar, he studied in Germany and performed with companies in Augsburg, Munich, and Nürnberg, as well as Salzburg, Austria. Currently a recipient of the 2013 Individual Artist Fellowship rom the Delaware Division of the Arts, he continues to further his education and to be involved in new projects. He sang the role of The Boy/Angel 1 with great delicacy.

    Soprano Lauren Snouffer has just finished her two years as a member of the Houston Grand Opera Studio (their young artist program), and was a grand finalist of the 2012 National Council Auditions. She is scheduled to debut with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and other companies. Her Agnès was defiant, fierce, and she did well with the wide vocal range of the role for the most part, in spite of a bit of vocal fatigue at the very end.

    Our Protector was Evan Hughes, a guest at Tanglewood, given that he is currently a member of the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. He has already been at the Met's main stage in La Rondine. He is a former Tanglewood fellow, has performed in Don Giovanni under James Levine, and has sung at Carnegie Hall already. Mr. Hughes tonight had very clear diction and good acting with the voice.

    Tammy Coil, a Juilliard alumna who has had roles at Santa Fe Opera, Opera Theater of St. Louis, and Opera Philadelphia among others, did well in the comprimario part of Marie/Angel 1.

    Canadian tenor Isaiah Bell was able to shine even though his part is also small (Angel 3/John). His voice has a beautiful timbre and is very well projected. He has done good work with prestigious conductors such as Kent Nagano and Yannick Nézet-Séguin with various Canadian orchestras and opera companies, and has sung the difficult Winterreise already.

    I thought that the young instrumentalists in the orchestra did a superb job. Transitions were smooth, and the dynamics were rather perfect, from the pianissimo in the strings during the most intimate moments, to the loud percussion during the hectic events of part 3.

    Absent but present through his text was the great Martin Crimp. The hall provided two large screen TV monitors on each side of the orchestra, with the supertitles. An opera that opens like this gives you already a jolt in your spine:

    Strip the cities of brick, dismantle them.
    Strip out the wires and cover the land with grass.
    Force chrome and aluminum back into the earth.
    Cancel all flights from the international airports -
    And people the sky with angels.
    Erase the Saturday car-park from the marketplace,
    rub out the white lines:
    make way for the wild primrose
    and slow torture of criminals.
    Shatter the printing-press.
    Make each new book a precious object written on skin.
    Fade out the living:
    snap back the dead to life.

    To make this evening of superlative music even more satisfying, I had the immense pleasure of meeting George Benjamin in person, backstage. I was touched with the fact that he thanked Opera Lively for all the support we've been giving him. With his well known modesty and grace, the brilliant composer said I was being silly, when I told him that meeting him was a pleasure similar to what I imagine other opera lovers have experienced in the past when they met Verdi and Puccini. Well, his teacher Olivier Messiaen used to compare him to Mozart, so, I can't be too out of line...

    Some pictures of this historic event, taken by this writer in less than ideal conditions of light and camera so they are a bit blurry (Tanglewood officials did allow me to snatch these pictures):

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    The manicured Tanglewood lawn

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    These large doors open for the performance, so that patrons who couldn't get a seat inside, can see the show from lawn chairs

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    The beautiful hall before the show

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    Now the door to the lawn is open

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    Yes, what you see behind these chairs is a glass harmonica!

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    Benjamin greeting the orchestra at the end

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    Standing ovation - it went on for a long time!

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    The soloists, from left to right: Lauren Snouffer, Evan Hughes, Augustine Mercante, Tammy Coil, and Isaiah Bell, with George Benjamin

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    The brilliant composer George Benjamin

    A night that won't be forgotten, and the high point of my trip to Santa Fe, Glimmerglass, and Tanglewood for opera coverage! So, George, mission accomplished: "Move you...", yes. "Enchant..." Absolutely! "Stir you..." Definitely! "Thrill you..." You bet!

    Written on Skin: grade A+++, my highest recommendation ever, in all my reviews.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); August 14th, 2013 at 11:29 AM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Opera Lively Coordinator - Donor Member Top Contributor Member tyroneslothrop's Avatar
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    I'm so sad that I had to miss this due to work and my ticket went unused.
    “The hand of Providence creeps among the stars, giving Slothrop the finger.”
    ― Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Idea: I think I will publish a guide to Written on Skin.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Opera Lively Moderator Top Contributor Member Amfortas's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) View Post
    Idea: I think I will publish a guide to Written on Skin.
    I understand your enthusiasm for the opera, but just to play devil's advocate . . . Is there enough critical, reception, and production history to provide material for such a book? And is there enough of an audience for this brand new piece--no matter how well received--to generate sales?

    A guide for such a new opera could be a valuable, pathbreaking venture. But at the very least, you might have to adapt your writing and marketing strategy a bit.
    Last edited by Amfortas; August 14th, 2013 at 01:27 AM.

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Amfortas View Post
    I understand your enthusiasm for the opera, but just to play devil's advocate . . . Is there enough critical, reception, and production history to provide material for such a book? And is there enough of an audience for this brand new piece--no matter how well received--to generate sales?

    A guide for such a new opera could be a valuable, pathbreaking venture. But at the very least, you might have adapt your writing and marketing strategy a bit.
    I don't worry much about sales... It wouldn't sell much, I bet, but that's OK.
    Yes, I think there's been enough material about this opera.
    While there are guides everywhere about the workhorses of the repertory, it would be good to have a guide about a contemporary opera. The DVD is coming up... There will be a New York performance... it's coming back to Covent Garden... Yes, I think there is enough interest.
    Well, once it becomes clear that this is one of the best masterpieces that will be written in the 21st Century, Opera Lively will have published the first guide to it.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Opera Lively Moderator Top Contributor Member Amfortas's Avatar
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    I think those are good answers. And you've already got exclusive interview material you can use. Perhaps you can find other ways to involve the composer and cast members in the project.

    A first guide to this modern masterpiece would certainly be historic--something to look back on with pride years from now.

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    Opera Lively Coordinator - Donor Member Top Contributor Member tyroneslothrop's Avatar
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    Tasting Triumph in Serving of a Heart: George Benjamin’s ‘Written on Skin’ Caps Tanglewood Festival: [clicky]
    “The hand of Providence creeps among the stars, giving Slothrop the finger.”
    ― Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow

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    Opera Lively Coordinator - Donor Member Top Contributor Member tyroneslothrop's Avatar
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    ‘Written on Skin’ receives US premiere at Tanglewood: [clicky]
    “The hand of Providence creeps among the stars, giving Slothrop the finger.”
    ― Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow

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    Opera Lively Coordinator - Donor Member Top Contributor Member tyroneslothrop's Avatar
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    Concert review: Tanglewood orchestra debuts 'Written On Skin' on Lenox: [clicky]
    “The hand of Providence creeps among the stars, giving Slothrop the finger.”
    ― Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow

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    Opera Lively Coordinator - Donor Member Top Contributor Member tyroneslothrop's Avatar
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    Written on Skin Makes U.S. Debut: [clicky]
    “The hand of Providence creeps among the stars, giving Slothrop the finger.”
    ― Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow

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    Opera Lively Coordinator - Donor Member Top Contributor Member tyroneslothrop's Avatar
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    U.S. Premiere of George Benjamin’s Opera @ Tanglewood, 8/12/13: [clicky]
    “The hand of Providence creeps among the stars, giving Slothrop the finger.”
    ― Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow

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    Opera Lively Coordinator - Donor Member Top Contributor Member tyroneslothrop's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) View Post
    Idea: I think I will publish a guide to Written on Skin.
    George Benjamin might agree to write a forward for it. You might want to check with him on permission to print the libretto. He might grant it for a guidebook.
    “The hand of Providence creeps among the stars, giving Slothrop the finger.”
    ― Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow

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    Opera Lively Coordinator - Donor Member Top Contributor Member tyroneslothrop's Avatar
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    Opera’s conventions made new in ‘Written on Skin’: [clicky]
    “The hand of Providence creeps among the stars, giving Slothrop the finger.”
    ― Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by tyroneslothrop View Post
    George Benjamin might agree to write a forward for it. You might want to check with him on permission to print the libretto. He might grant it for a guidebook.
    I have already asked. No response yet.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Opera Lively Coordinator - Donor Member Top Contributor Member tyroneslothrop's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) View Post
    I have already asked. No response yet.
    Yes, will probably be complicated. Getting permission for republishing libretti of living composers/librettists are complicated by the need to get written permission from all of the composers, librettists, and publishers involved.
    “The hand of Providence creeps among the stars, giving Slothrop the finger.”
    ― Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow

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