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Opera serves up hearty drama, critics hunger for more

By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - "Love is not a picture, love is an act," sings the defiant young woman Agnes during composer George Benjamin and playwright Martin Crimp's gripping new opera, "Written on Skin".

Married at the age of 14 to a brute of a man in 12th century Provencal France, she has her sexual and emotional awakening when her husband brings a footloose, fancy-free young male illuminator of parchments into his home to record the richness of his possessions - including Agnes - for posterity.

It is the classic love triangle but it all comes to a particularly gruesome denouement in this short, steamy new work which had its London premiere on Friday at the Royal Opera House, with four more performances through March 22.

"There isn't a much higher compliment you can pay a new work than wanting to hear it again the moment it has finished," critic Neil Fisher wrote in The Times after opening night.

Rupert Christiansen added in The Daily Telegraph: "It is not often that I've had cause to trumpet such a claim, but here is a new opera that is palpably a serious and important work of art, both exquisitely crafted and deeply resonant."

For this triumph, in his first full-length opera, Benjamin augments the conventional opera orchestra with a glass harmonica to produce shimmering waves of sound, viola da gamba and cow bells for a Provencal and medieval touch, and what may be sleigh bells, though this is no one's idea of a Christmas story.

Bits stick in the head, and for a new opera that's rare.

"Benjamin's greatest success is to use the orchestra both to mine all the sweaty detail from the narrative and to capture its wider, stranger dramatic resonance," Fisher said in a rave review.

OPERA RECLAIMS CINEMA'S GRIP ON FANTASY

Often in Western myth and legend, awakening female sexuality is like taunting dragons and almost inevitably leads to bad ends, particularly for women. Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan inhabits the role of wide-awake Agnes with demonic intensity.

Illiterate, unschooled and wary at first of the illuminator, called the Boy and sung with eloquence by American counter-tenor Bejun Mehta, Agnes quickly is moved to taunt him about his work, saying that a picture of a woman he has drawn is not real.

She proceeds to demonstrate what a real woman is by seducing him on the dining room table.

Her husband, sung powerfully by baritone Christopher Purves, meanwhile spends sleepless nights alone in his bed, wondering where his wife is.

The added twist that blinds the Protector to what is happening right under his nose is that he, too, has fallen in love with the Boy and in one of the later scenes he favors the younger man with a big, sloppy kiss.

Eventually the hanky panky in the shadows around the farmhouse, and in color in the illuminated book, has to come out in black and white: Agnes forces the Boy to write down exactly what they mean to each other.

As the Protector reads the page out loud, the Boy scoots out of the door with his bag of gold, but he can never get away far or fast enough from a man whose demesne stretches for furlongs and whose yeomen are described as spearing babies in the fields.

The Protector serves up a tasty treat for his unfaithful wife of the cooked heart of her lover.

When he tells her what it is, she says she savors it all the more and starts to stuff it in her mouth, seeing her husband's evil hand and trumping it.

The final scene, in which Agnes contrives to escape her husband killing her by joining her lover in a death leap of her own free will, is played out in remarkably choreographed and cinematic slow motion under director Katie Mitchell's deft hand.

Since he was a boy and saw Disney's tribute movie to classical music "Fantasia", Benjamin has been inspired by and at the same time challenged by cinema, which he says has usurped opera's role as the purveyor of myth and fantasy.

In "Written on Skin", Benjamin and Crimp have transplanted the mythic heart of cinema back into opera - and made a fantastic, savory dish of it.

(Editing by Mike Collett-White)

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