Opera Philadelphia

Written on Skin Synopsis


Scene 1: Chorus of Angels
“Erase the Saturday car-park from the market place, fade out the living, snap back the dead to life.”

A Chorus of Angels takes us back 800 years, to a time when every book is a precious object “written on skin.” They bring to life two of the story’s protagonists: the Protector, a wealthy and intelligent landowner “addicted to purity and violence,” and his obedient wife, his “property,” Agnès. One of the angels then transforms into the third protagonist, “the Boy,” an illuminator of manuscripts.

Scene 2: The Protector, Agnès, and the Boy

In front of his wife, the Protector asks the Boy to celebrate his life and good deeds in an illuminated book. It should show his enemies in Hell, and his own family in Paradise. As proof of his skill, the Boy shows the Protector a flattering miniature of a rich and merciful man. Agnès distrusts the Boy and is suspicious of the making of pictures, but the Protector overrules her and instructs her to welcome him into their house.

Scene 3: Chorus of Angels

The Angels evoke the brutality of the biblical creation story, “invent man and drown him,” “bulldoze him screaming into a pit,” and its hostility to women, “invent her/strip her/blame her for everything.”

Scene 4: Agnès and the Boy

Without telling her husband, Agnès goes to the Boy’s workshop to find out “how a book is made.” The Boy shows her a miniature of Eve, but she laughs at it. She challenges the Boy to make a picture of a “real” woman, like herself, a woman with precise and recognizable features, a woman that he, the Boy, could sexually desire.

Scene 5: The Protector and the visitors, John and Marie

As winter comes, the Protector broods about a change in his wife’s behavior. She hardly talks or eats, has started to turn her back to him in bed, and pretends to be asleep, but he knows she’s awake and can hear her eyelashes “scrape the pillow/like an insect.” When Agnès’s sister Marie arrives with her husband, John, she questions the enterprise of the book, and in particular the wisdom of inviting a strange Boy to eat at the family table with Agnès. The Protector emphatically defends both Boy and book, and threatens to exclude John and Marie from his property.

Scene 6: Agnès and the Boy

The same night, when Agnès is alone, the Boy slips into her room to show her the picture she asked for. At first she claims not to know what he means, but soon recognizes that the painted image of a sleepless woman in bed is a portrait of herself, her naked limbs tangled with the covers. As they examine the picture together, the sexual tension grows until Agnès offers herself to the Boy.


Scene 7: The Protector’s bad dream

The Protector dreams not only that his people are rebelling against the expense of the book, but also, more disturbingly, that there are rumors of a secret page, “wet like a woman’s mouth,” where Agnès is shown “gripping the Boy in a secret bed.”

Scene 8: The Protector and Agnès

The Protector wakes up from the dream and reaches out for his wife. She, however, is standing at the window watching black smoke in the distance, as the Protector’s men burn enemy villages. She asks her husband to touch and kiss her, but he’s disgusted at being approached in this way by his wife and repels her, saying that only her childishness can excuse her behavior. She angrily refuses to accept the label “child,” and tells him that if he wants to know the truth about her, he should go to the Boy: “Ask him what I am.”

Scene 9: The Protector and the Boy

The Protector finds the Boy in the wood “looking at his own reflection in the blade of a knife.” He demands to know the name of the woman who “screams and sweats with you/in a secret bed,” is it Agnès? The Boy, not wanting to betray Agnès, tells the Protector that he is sleeping with Agnès’s sister, Marie, and conjures up an absurd scene of Marie’s erotic fantasies. The Protector is happy to believe the Boy, and reports back to Agnès that the Boy is sleeping with “that whore your sister.”

Scene 10: Agnès and the Boy

Believing that what her husband said is true, Agnès furiously accuses the Boy of betraying her. He explains he lied to protect her, but this only makes her more angry: it wasn’t to protect her, it was to protect himself. If he truly loves her then he should have the courage to tell the truth, and at the same time punish her husband for treating her like a child. She demands that the Boy, as proof of his fidelity, create a new, shocking image that will destroy her husband’s complacency once and for all.


Scene 11: The Protector, Agnès, and the Boy

The Boy shows the Protector and Agnès some pages from the completed book, a sequence of atrocities that make the Protector increasingly impatient to see Paradise. The Boy is surprised: he claims that these are indeed pictures of Paradise here on earth; doesn’t the Protector recognize his own family and property? Agnès then asks to be shown Hell. The Boy gives her a page of writing. This frustrates Agnès because, as a woman, she hasn’t been taught to read. But the Boy goes, leaving Agnès and her husband alone with the “secret page.”

Scene 12: The Protector and Agnès

The Protector reads aloud the page of writing. In it the Boy describes in sensuous detail his relationship with Agnès. For the Protector, this is devastating, but for Agnès it is confirmation that the Boy has done exactly as she asked. Excited and fascinated by the writing, indifferent to his distress, she asks her husband to show her “the word for love.”

Scene 13: Chorus of Angels and the Protector

The Angels evoke the cruelty of a god who creates man out of dust only to fill his mind with conflicting desires and “make him ashamed to be human.” Torn between mercy and violence, the Protector goes back to the wood, and, “cutting one long clean incision through the bone,” murders the Boy.

Scene 14: The Protector and Agnès

The Protector attempts to reassert control over Agnès. She is told what to say, what she may or may not call herself, and, sitting at a long dining table, is forced to eat the meal set in front of her to prove her “obedience.” The Protector repeatedly asks her how the food tastes and is infuriated by her insistence that the meal tastes good. He then reveals that she has eaten the Boy’s heart. Far from breaking her will, this provokes a defiant outburst in which Agnès claims that no possible act of violence, “not if you strip me to the bone with acid,” will ever take the taste of the Boy’s heart out of her mouth.

Scene 15: The Boy/Angel 1

The Boy reappears as an Angel to present one final picture: in it, the Protector takes a knife to kill Agnès, but she prefers to take her own life by jumping from the balcony. The picture shows her as a falling figure forever suspended by the illuminator in the night sky, while three small angels painted in the margin turn to meet the viewer’s gaze.

By Martin Crimp

MapAcademy of Music

Dates are Feb. 2018.

Fri, Feb 9 8:00 p.m.
Sun, Feb 11 2:30 p.m.
Fri, Feb 16 8:00 p.m.
Sun, Feb 18 2:30 p.m.

Approximately one hour and 35 minutes with no intermission

Chat with Guest Services