This past June Opus Arte released a DVD box set entitled Contemporary British Opera, collecting three recent productions by the Royal Opera at Covent Garden. All were recorded during performances. The operas themselves, in the order in which the recordings were made, are The Minotaur by Harrison Birtwistle with a libretto by David Harsent, (April and May 2008), Anna Nicole by Mark-Anthony Turnage with a libretto by Richard Thomas (February of 2011), and Written on Skin by George Benjamin with a libretto by Martin Crimp (March of 2013) Benjamin himself conducted the performance of Written on Skin, and the other two operas were conducted by Antonio Pappano.
This is quite a mixed collection, even if it is unclear whether or not it provides a representative sample of what currently counts for “contemporary opera” in Britain, or even in Covent Garden. What is most striking is the contrast between two operas, each of which takes its own approach to the stuff of “classic” mythology, and the third, which is basically a no-holds-barred vulgar reflection on the myth of the American dream. The result is considerable diversity in style in which each approach is still supported by a bedrock of solid performance technique.
Each of the two “classic myth” operas proceeds in a radically different direction with its own stylistic approach. The Minotaur draws upon one of the most familiar stories from Greek mythology, but Harsent’s libretto chooses to present it from the point of view of Ariadne, making Christine Rice’s portrayal of this role the core of the narrative around which both Theseus (Johan Reuter) and the Minotaur (John Tomlinson) must orbit. What is interesting, however, is that, while Theseus kills the Minotaur, the libretto does not follow up with how Theseus finds his way out of the labyrinth with Ariadne’s ball of twine and then sails for Athens without her. Instead, the opera concludes with the Minotaur’s death scene, followed by the entrance of the vulture-like Ker to feed on his body. Thus, one leaves with a sense that Harsent’s libretto has chosen the breaking of the sibling relationship between Ariadne and the Minotaur for closure, rather than the breaking of her relationship with Theseus.
Visually, the Minotaur character definitely draws the most attention. Tomlinson brings just the right rhetoric to the creature’s voice, both bold and pained at the same time. The problem, however, is that all of the action tends to revolve around the presence of the Minotaur, which tends to divert attention from the fascinating struggles of will between Ariadne and Theseus. Musically, Birtwistle serves up a heady brew of dissonance; but it is dissonance that makes highly consistent sense in the context of the overall narrative.
Written on Skin on the other hand amounts to a myth concerned with the relationship between mortals and a higher plane of angels. In many respects the “central character” of the opera is the ingenious set designed by Vicki Mortimer, which is a two-dimensional grid of compartmentalized boxy rooms. There are the rooms inhabited by the angels and the rooms inhabited by the mortals, and then there are the boundaries that are crossed. The crossing of those boundaries brings about an erotic encounter with catastrophic consequences, all of which makes the viewing experience as compelling as the auditory.
The parties in this encounter are the mortal woman Agnès, sung by Barbara Hannigan, and an angel (countertenor Bejun Mehta), who comes to earth as a boy to assume the task of preparing a document for Agnès’ husband, known only as “The Protector” (Christopher Purves). Because Benjamin is so skilled in his ability to evoke a rich palette of sonorities, the music is strikingly effective in conveying both the tension and the sense of doom that ensue as a result of that act of boundary-crossing.
Neither of these operas provides a particularly conducive context for viewing Anna Nicole. The libretto takes the basic biographical sketch of a woman known almost exclusively for the bizarre size of her enhanced breasts and turns the opera into an agitprop recrimination of “the American way of life.” The result is a funhouse ride through the world of trailer trash, cosmetic surgery, rich dirty old men, and all those masses involved with both the production and consumption of “media.” (Even Larry King has a role in this opera.) As a composer Turnage knows how to be loud and vulgar; and, in this respect, he has served this opera well. However, the clunky rhymed couplets of the libretto quickly become tedious, particularly to anyone used to the far more literate gifts of a librettist like Stephen Sondheim.
Here in the United States, both Written on Skin and Anna Nicole quickly became objects of controversy (obviously for quite different reasons). Where Anna Nicole is concerned, the bottom line is that both the idea behind the opera and its realization are ultimately too mundane to warrant very much thought, let alone any argument over that thought. Written on Skin, on the other hand, seems to have provoked because both music and libretto are so nonstandard. Nevertheless, this is definitely the strongest opera in the package, provided that the viewer/listener is willing to take it on its own terms. This requires that the viewer fill in a lot of gaps left by the librettist, but similar gaps can be found in Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. It would be comforting to believe that, half a century in the future, Written on Skin will enjoy as secure a place in the opera repertoire as Wozzeck enjoys today.