Angels aren't friendly in this opera.
They've been around for centuries. They've literally seen it all. And at the close of Written on Skin, the opera that arrives at the Academy of Music on Friday for four performances through Feb. 18, the angels witness the classical operatic love triangle with real people more or less devouring one another. Their reaction: "Cold fascination with human disaster."
That disaster also promises to have stunning immediacy, even though the opera was premiered in 2012 and has been in the works at Opera Philadelphia for three years. "Between the political strife and Me Too, there's a big public discourse about the use of power … there's a lot of that in this piece," said Opera Philadelphia general director and president David Devan.
How that unfolds, though, won't be conventional, even to audiences accustomed to operatic carnage at the final curtain. Despite observant angels, romantic revenge goes to extremes as a wealthy land owner discovers the artist he hired to create what amounts to a graphic novel about his life is trysting with his repressed trophy wife, whom he refers to as "property."
The twist: The core story, based on a fable about the troubadour Guillaume de Cabestanh, takes place in 13th-century Provence, though right outside that story stands a parallel existence of modern parking lots and concrete buildings. Angels bridge the 800-year gap.
Confusion is not necessarily in store for Philadelphia audiences. Ever seen old photos of historic figures in the Academy of Music on the very spot where you have also stood? Then you know the duality of Written on Skin.
The opera, by composer George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp, hasn't just been hugely successful but is often acclaimed as one of the best pieces of the still-new century. At last count, the opera had tallied 80 performances around the world, from Argentina to Russia to Spain, even with an uncompromising score that delivers everything but tunes.
Don't to try to figure out the opera analytically, says countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who plays the artist. "Just experience it, and it will put itself together in front of you," he said. "The opera has to emerge. And it will if you let it."
That emergence in Philadelphia will be nothing like other productions. Both time periods can be visually arid, whether the brutalist architecture of modern times or the primitivism of medieval times. What changes that — radically — is what was then called an illuminated manuscript written on animal skins (thus, the opera's title) that's illustrated with some of the most vivid colors seen in any century. That was Opera Philadelphia's cue for its new production.
"It's about color and light," said Devan. "When I first talked to director [Will Kerley] about it, he said, "All I hear is color [in the music]. Do you think that's worthy of exploration?"
The original production had neutral costumes. In Philadelphia, some costumes will increasingly take on the lush coloration of the illuminated manuscripts. Most important, the set has none of the compartments seen in the original. The opera is focused on a large revolving box that constantly changes to reveal doors, staircases, and arches, sometimes suggesting something medieval, sometimes looking slightly futuristic.
Stacks and shelves of oversize books on stage will be lighted from within with rich colors. "The idea is that the boy is turning liquid into light. That's his craft. He's doing alchemy in his workshop," said Kerley.
And the angels? "Definitely no feathers and wings," said set and costume designer Tom Rogers. Or with wing tattoos on bare skin — as in the original. "Our angels are architects, architects of time," said Rogers. "They can go back and recreate the past, which is what they're doing in this story."
Such ideas so intrigue the English composer that he is flying to Philadelphia to see the production, even though he's preparing a major new opera for premiere — Lessons in Love and Violence — in May at London's Royal Opera. The Philadelphia team had extensive talks with Benjamin, who was impressed.
"We talked an hour and a half — that's not usual," Benjamin said by phone from London. "Some people don't want the interference of the composer … I know some of the cast. The countertenor is something of a star. I was very warmly invited to the opening. I've never been to Philadelphia, and I didn't think that I could refuse."
The original Katie Mitchell production on the Opus Arte label DVD has the stage divided into compartments where the various dimensions of the story take place. But for some years in opera circles, there have been murmurings that isn't the only or best way to go.
Some productions have gone farther with superimposed imagery. Too far. "Despite knowing the piece well, I had no idea what was going on," Benjamin reports of one European production that goes nameless. "And the audience probably didn't have much idea as well … When the audience loses contact, there's no way the piece can speak anymore."
Of course, composer and librettist could have written a more straightforward narrative. Actually, no, they couldn't have. Multiple time periods, with characters who often seem to narrate their own stories, conjured a strange dream world for Benjamin. "It drew music from me. If I had a more conventional narrative, I'm not sure I would've written the opera," he said. "I don't know if I had been able."
The friction between "meta" elements means the opera can seem to say different things with different viewings. Though the hallmark of the music is its spare precision and great craftsmanship, the dramaturgical elements leave much leeway, starting with the fact that most of the characters don't have names. The landowner is simply called "The Protector." The book artist is called "The Boy."
Originally, the Boy had a wide-eyed innocence even as he was being seduced by the Protector's wife (who has a proper name – Agnes). Costanzo's Boy is Machiavellian beyond his years.
The pieces of the story don't always add up or cohere. If the Boy is an angel, how can he die at the hands of the Protector? Such are the kinds of figure-it-out questions Costanzo cautions against.
He's one of the theatrically resourceful singers in opera, having been a child performer on Broadway and at the Academy of Music in the 1990s, when he sang the role of the shepherd boy in Tosca opposite Luciano Pavarotti. His approach with Written on Skin is to make every moment as clear as possible, and in giving the role of the Boy a less boyish cast, he uses some of the low notes slipping out of his countertenor voice.
"The composer leaves spaces for the singers to make something," Costanzo said. "Do the authors know what the characters mean? Maybe they do, but they aren't telling anybody about it. So you have to make up your own logic."
Nonetheless, the production represents a risk. Opera Philadelphia is shouldering the entire expense and artistic responsibility without the cushion of coproducers. And though such adventurous repertoire would be a natural fit for the Kimmel Center's smallish Perelman Theater, Devan had to put Written on Skin in the Academy of Music if only because the orchestra is too large to fit into the Perelman.
That's important, as a big part of the piece is Benjamin's efforts to reflect the illuminated manuscript colors in the orchestra — including glass harmonica, muted trumpets, mandolins, and much more, often in six- to seven-note chord clusters.
Of course, Written on Skin is potentially more challenging than other new operas Devan has put in the winter slot at the academy, such as Silent Night and Cold Mountain. But he believes in the piece and is riding pretty high, especially as Opera Philadelphia's O17 was announced last week as a finalist in the "festival" category for the International Opera Awards, along with prestigious festivals such as Bayreuth and Glyndebourne.
"We aren't playing the Disney game, which is to be flat-out entertaining all the time," said Devan. "My goal is for the audiences to witness the intention of the piece and be thrilled by the artistry of the people we're putting before them."