As a lover of much of Benjamin's oeuvre I expected to love this. And I did not. I'm still trying to figure out why. (I should note that I am considerably better disposed to the score now that I have heard the CD recording a few times than when I heard it in the theatre)
The thing felt compositionally "thin" - the rate of musical ideas is very low, the harmonic rhythm is extremely slow, ideas unfurl with minimum density and intensity. The aural surface is very beautiful, a slowly waving curtain of sounds, like Feldmanised Debussy stripped of its lush core and played at half speed: timbres are muted, crystalline, nacreous, pearlescent, with occasional explosive outbursts of violent noise that erupt from nowhere. It's very wind/brass focussed, with strings often just providing a whispy miasma of harmonics and viol like timbres, veils of sound imitating and supporting muted trumpets, which might be the "Ur-klang" of the piece. The score doesn't always seem to intersect with the libretto, at times diverging, falling out of focus, a softly atonal mist coiling around the subject - it's the opposite of German opera which demands that the story be told by both words and score in perfect harmony at all times, both simultaneously moving forward with their own logic. It certainly has its own atmosphere, but for some reason this evening it didn't have much of an overall impact on me, and aside from about ten minutes of music in the whole piece a certain austerity and plainness kept me from being too stimulated by the music.
I was sitting in the fourth row of the stalls and somehow the timbres didn't quite resonate properly in the ROH theatre from where I was. Heard up close on the recording that has just come out, they sound ultra beautiful and the music flows with a more palpable logic, but there's a real issue if your perfectly sculpted orchestrations don't sound properly in the space they were composed for. The orchestra is massive which mitigates its performances in smaller, more intimate venues (which my guess is where it would find its natural home) but everything's so quiet, the instruments used so sparingly, that much is lost in a natural acoustic. As I say it may have been my seat.
Aside from acoustical issues, I wonder if part of the problem for my lack of engagement was the production. The central story is very simple: a rich landowner commissions a young artist to create a beautiful vellum book that will glorify his name, wealth and empire. The landowner's illiterate, subjugated wife soon falls into an illicit affair with the boy with predictably violent results when her husband finds out. The libretto is uncomplicated, quietly poetic and pruned of flab to an almost painful degree. Like the score, it's also unsentimental to the point of asceticism, there's no redemption through love (the affair is a desperate meeting of bodies only), the ending is cruel and unapologetic and there is no moral to be drawn. We don't feel much sympathy for anyone (we're not meant to), except perhaps the landowner, though as a friend pointed out, maybe that's because the story has been passed down through a book that was meant to glorify him...
In Katie Mitchell's production, the set is divided into four rooms which are in totally different periods of time. The room where the central story occurs is set in the 13th century as the libretto suggests. The neighbouring rooms are a contemporary archaeological lab with various people in lab coats analysing objects from the main story, principally the book that is the cause of the story. So the piece becomes them unravelling the story and it coming to life through the book. The action continuously switches between the 13th century story (where the modern characters continue their business in slow motion) and (accompanied by deft lighting and changes of speed) the contemporary setting where the lab technicians semi invisibly interact with the characters and set them up for the next scene. The boy lives across both worlds and is both an archaeologist and 13th century artist. This makes sense of some of the use of third person in the libretto (characters very often narrate their own actions), but is Mitchell being a bit literal here in trying to make sense of it all? The sense of emotional reserve is palpable in text and music, but I wonder if Mitchell has taken it too far and not trusted that it will have an emotional effect without explanation and intervention. It cannot be denied at least that it is visually arresting.
I also had issues with the lack of coordination between text/music and action - at one point the two lovers are tearing into each other (manual stimulation is the plat du jour in this opera), but the music continues with its veiled soughing and the singer's exhortations are so small scale that it's difficult to marry the visual with the aural. Barbara Hannigan is much better as Agnes than in her recent QEH recital, singing with unflinchingly superb intonation, consistent tone and an attractive sound, but the voice is very small and lacks the colour for larger, more expressive vocal gestures. She's never inaudible because the orchestration is so light but I do think she would have more impact in a smaller space. Acting wise she is totally committed to the role, living it fully, and her icy stage presence is completely in line with the music and text. Christopher Purves is similarly fine as The Protector (the landowner) singing with great beauty, accuracy and sensitivity, while maintaining a strong sense of the character's oafish violence, though there were a few gargling interferences and minor cracks in the sound this evening. Bejun Mehta is also fine as The Boy, blending beautifully with Hannigan, even if his vibrato can become uncomfortably wide, unpleasantly exploding into action after a long straight tone.
The ROH orchestra under George Benjamin are committed, but lack presence as already suggested, and as already discussed I don't know whether this was because of where I was sitting, the size of the ROH, the playing, the conducting or the score's subtleties not sounding properly in a real acoustic. I wish I could have seen it from another seat also!