George Benjamin / Mahler Chamber Orchestra

George Benjamin: Written on Skin

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The album at hand is a live recording of the premiere of the opera Written on Skin, commissioned from composer George Benjamin by the Festival of Aix-en-Provence in France. That's appropriate in that the opera is based on a medieval troubadour tale that could have been heard in that area, but in its compactness and clipped restraint it is a quite British work. The story (a version of which appears in The Decameron of Boccaccio), however, is over the top, and whether it is enhanced by the music or not is a matter of taste. It's as grim as opera gets, featuring a shadowy medieval lord called the Protector; his wife, Agnès; and an artist-troubadour figure, called the Boy, who is commissioned by the Protector to tell the family's story in an illustrated manuscript. Jealousies develop, and, not to spoil too much, the heart of one of the characters is cooked and served up to another. The story was not a set of troubadour songs originally but a written-down short story that seems to have served as a source of background information for musical performance, and Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp effectively catch this aspect by having the characters step outside themselves periodically. The Boy is realized as a countertenor role, sung by Bejun Mehta, and all the singers are top-notch. The action proceeds swiftly and intensely, unfolding mostly in a series of duets. It does not lack passion, but it does have the quality of a tapestry when the story it tells is drenched in blood. At any rate, it's well worth hearing, especially for those interested in how the legacy of medieval song might serve as a basis for contemporary works. Benjamin's Duet for piano and orchestra seems to have been included for no other reason than to fill out the second disc in the CD release; it really was not necessary. The live sound is impressively clear.

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