Written on Skin is not your mother’s opera! Though many of the themes remain the same, life, love, betrayal, death, most other aspects of this production will be jarring to your pre-conceived notions of the genre.
Firstly, it is in English, and though not the first of its kind presented by the Opéra de Montreal, it does immediately strike one’s senses differently. Secondly, the familiar themes are treated in a much more graphic way, making it immediately clear that this libretto was penned in the 21st century. Thirdly, the unwavering falsetto performance by Luigi Schifano. Lastly, the score! Sounding almost more like the work of Michael Abels than a traditional operatic composition, the music is both haunting and jarring. A fact I would very much enjoy, if the vocal performances didn’t sound as though they were constantly trying to find their way to the orchestra in the dark.
Set in the 13th
century, the story revolves around a subservient woman named Agnès (Magali Simard-Galdès, Soprano),
her husband, only known as “The Protector” (Daniel Okulitch, Bass-Baritone),
and “The Boy” (Luigi Schifano, Countertenor). The Protector is incredibly
boastful of his power, and lords it over his wife, and his people. He
commissions The Boy, an angel come down to earth, to write and illustrate his
glory in an illuminated manuscript for all to see. The Boy awakens Agnès’ desires, and she breaks free of her shackled existence and begins
to demand respect. Suffice it to say, it doesn’t end well.
(Mezzo-Soprano) and Jean-Michel Richer (Tenor) round out the cast as two other
angels, not bound by time or place, but able to see what the future will bring.
Written on Skin
widely regarded as one of the greater compositions of the 21st
century, but this production simply won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. A fact
driven home by the near absence of patrons in the last five rows of the theatre
on the night of the premiere.
The set was
majestic in design but was still somehow under utilized. The costumes were
thoughtful, but so somber and lacking in tonality, that when Agnès sheds her literal shackles, it was the first I realized that she
was wearing any. Then there is my very personal impatience with each character
continuously referring to themselves in song. I realize this is a stylistic
choice, and a reference to the manuscript being written, but to constantly hear
“the boy says”, “the girl is smiling”, as each person completes their sentence,
wore very thin.
I applaud the
endeavor, the passion of the players, the skills of the conductor (Nicole
Paiement, OdM debut), but ultimately, I was not enthralled. Though I will call special attention to the
prop of the illuminated manuscript, which shone brightly whenever opened. A
wonderful effect achieved through a mirrored pane within its pages. In the end,
if you want to see a “sure thing”, this will not be the production for you.