Sunday, August 23, 2015

The retro moderns

Written on Skin - Mostly Mozart Festival, 8/15/2015
Purves, Hannigan, Mead / Gilbert

There was a lot of hype in Mostly Mozart's marketing of this US (staged) premiere. Not a shock, of course, but the degree to which George Benjamin's music and Katie Mitchell's staging lived up to this hype was both surprising and gratifying. Martin Crimp's libretto was the sticking point, though not a fatal one.

The strength of Crimp's contribution is its dual-time setting: as Benjamin's interview in the program notes suggests, this framing/distancing element releases the characters and action from the (relatively) recent obligation of versimilitude into the "spontaneity and dramatic immediacy" of story. The individuals who act are vaguely medieval (the sense of chronological/social distance is strong, the specifics - despite the illumination motif - not nearly so), while the observing "Angels" comment in the favored cant of today - pessimistic, feminist, against shame, obsessed with past infamies... This all-too-recognizable perspective risks turning the show into a smug sermon (gaining, in all likelihood, more praise now in exchange for quick oblivion later), but that outcome is deflected by a couple of additional factors. First, Mitchell's direction and Vicki Mortimer's set&costume design render the "Angels" with their own distancing specificity, as workers in a sterile office that rather amusingly recalls the Maloja Snake revival set from Clouds of Sils Maria (which I do realize the opera's Aix premiere - in this same production - pre-dates). Second, Crimp's authorial voice does come out pretty strongly, but it's not in the anachronism/ahistoricity of the frame nor the victimary resentment of the commentary, both of which seem like surface adaptation to suit more recent trends (which I'd call early and late postmodern respectively) in taste. What actually tells is the libretto's dead-serious engagement with classic modernist concerns: compulsion (particularly sexual), the artist's perogatives and his formalist foregrounding of ugly and/or awful material, etc., all of which make the 1900s more significant to this piece than the 1200s. Crimp is essentially faithful to this retro-modernism, avoiding the fate of the last modern/postmodern boundary opera I saw Alan Gilbert conduct in the city, which undermined itself with its self-refuting aesthetic mashup. This particular whole suggests nothing so much as a partially re-dressed Wozzeck - a bit antiquated now but a functional enough skeleton for musical drama.

The wonder, of course, is that Benjamin - a composition student of Messiaen - actually wrote a score that can stand comparison to Berg's masterpiece. One hearing (I haven't yet acquired the recording) can hardly unravel the specifics, but what most struck me was where Benjamin doesn't fail: the score lacks neither textural (common) nor rhythmic variety (depressingly uncommon); the vocal lines suit humans, "avoid[ing] the 'zigzagging' cliche of much contemporary vocal writing" (Benjamin's own words); and the scenes and interludes each have their own, strongly marked character. Benjamin finds interest where the libretto suggests cliche (the Protector, who could be dully one-dimensional, becomes the most interesting figure in the first parts because he alone, until Agnes's climactic declarations near the end, offers the confident pleasure of forward-moving rhythmic accompaniments) and adds unexpected bits of invention throughout while building the climaxes and turns the story demands.

Cast, orchestra, and conductor were excellent. I wouldn't hail Written on Skin as the great opera of today when it's so clearly in the aesthetic of a century ago... (Even the postmodernism with which its text flirts is long played out by now.) But it is a stunning piece of music, and a mixed but basically successful piece of theater.