16 March 2013

Written on Skin at the Royal Opera House

It was a late decision to see Written on Skin at the Royal Opera House that was prompted by good reviews on Twitter and supported by a description that promised something different, I like different.

The day was complicated by a date at the Arcola Theatre in the afternoon and the important Wales v England rugby match in the early evening.

Luckily it all worked out and I had a pre-opera dinner at Tuttons, just across the road, while watching the game on my iPhone. This was my first time in Tuttons and I'd go again. It's very much in the Browns/Cote mode, which is fine. Those two are better placed for ENO at the Coliseum and Tuttons is ideal for the Royal Opera House.

The other options would have been to eat at the Royal Opera House itself but other people had thought of that and it was fully booked. I am tempted to try and eat there in the future but not for the food or convenience, it's the architecture that appeals.

Sadly that impressive architecture is confined to the bar/restaurant area and the main house is as old-fashioned as always.

I spend more time in theatres watching the performances than I do easting and drinking so I find it odd that so many have refurbished the waiting areas and left the auditoriums untouched. The Lyric Hammersmith is much the same.

The proper way to do it is to rebuild everything as Glyndebourne and Saddlers Wells have done.

I did not want to take a risk with expensive tickets for an unknown opera so I headed for the amphitheatre. This stretches further back than seems sensible or comfortable but Row D in the central section was fine.

I was hoping for different and I got different.

The main difference was the very modern music that did its best to avoid anything approaching a tune. Instead we were served with a collection of disconnected musical sounds. I've made that sound worse than it was as I actually liked the music because of its weirdness. It just wasn't something that you could hum afterwards.

The staging was different too and I never really worked out what was going on. Of course I could have bought a programme or something but that would be against my basic principles, you should not have to be told how a performance works to enjoy it. In this case I enjoyed it without understanding it.

The stage was set on two levels with two or three sections on each (they moved). The main story, set in period, took place on the lower level while at the side of them people living in today got their costumes and props ready and on the upper level people walked through an office very slowly. It was all very weird but also engaging.

The short story told long was an old one featuring a warlord/king, his wife and an author, he who writes on skin. The wife and the author have inappropriate relationships and things end badly. Typical opera, and nothing wrong with that. Telling the story slowly allowed all the emotions to be displayed carefully one after the other.

The music may have been dissonant but the singing on top of it was lovely. The music popped, fizzed and banged in short bursts while the singing was steady, slow and sweet. The contrast worked and the sheer quality of the singing banished any lingering doubts about the music.

It ran for about 90 minutes without a break (increasingly fashionable, I'm pleased to say) and pulled me along with it nicely. There were no arias to speak of and the music was much the same all the way through so I cannot recall any specific highlights as such. Instead it was the steadiness of the atmosphere that I loved, exemplified by the slow walkers on the upper level.

Written on Skin was rather beautiful and I would certainly go to see it again, but I would prefer to do so at somewhere more modern, somewhere like Glyndebourne.

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