- Medieval Sources for George Benjamin's and Martin Crimp's Written on Skin (2012):Cansos, Vidas, Razos, and Songbooks of Guillem de Cabestaing
Inspiration for operatic scenarios can come from unexpected quarters. In the case of George Benjamin's and Martin Crimp's 2012 opera, Written on Skin, the commission for a new opera for the music festival at Aix-en-Provence prompted composer and writer to seek a subject connected with the region of Provence. By coincidence, Crimp's daughter was at that time a student at Cambridge University, working with Bill Burgwinkle, a leading scholar of medieval Occitan literature, and thus with ready access to a healthy supply of colorful tales of love, death, betrayal, and bloody revenge—staples not just of the operatic, but also of the medieval lyric realm. The consequence of that convergence of medieval and contemporary interests is the basis of an opera that recasts the medieval habitat of twelfth-century troubadour song as a "here-and-now" (as Martin Crimp describes it), a past reanimated not through reconstruction of Occitan melody, but rather through the contemporary voices and orchestral colors through which George Benjamin sonifies that world. While Written on Skin invites contextualization from many perspectives (contemporary opera studies, theater studies, or voice theory, to name but a few), its relationship to its medieval sources offers a particularly rich point of entry, not only into the world of Benjamin's and Crimp's operatic creation but also into the distant environment of its Occitan model.
Benjamin and Crimp took as their source the thirteenth-century Occitan prose biography, or razo, of the troubadour Guillem de Cabestaing (?1162–1212), active in the region of Roussillon at the end of the twelfth century. Guillem was author of numerous songs or cansos in the tradition of fin'amors, and like many troubadours in the tradition his life was fashioned by later writers into short biographies intended to be read and enjoyed as supplements to and "rationales" for the stories of love and loss that unfolded in the songs themselves. Guillem's life (and death) is notorious—as indeed it was in the Middle Ages—for the extraordinarily violent consequences of his forbidden love, centering around the gory consumption of the troubadour's heart, or the "coeur mangé." The elements of the tale, which was frequently reworked across the Middle Ages and beyond, are as follows. The troubadour, [End Page 319] a knight in the service of Raimon de Castel Roussillon, falls for his lord's wife, Lady Soremonda (also named Margarida in some sources), for whom he makes and sings songs. The songs, however, accidentally serve to broadcast their affair, and despite deflections by Guillem to imply the object of his love is in fact his lady's sister, the affair is exposed. Raimon's revenge is wrought through the murder of the troubadour, whose heart he cuts out, seasons, cooks, and then serves to his wife. On revelation of the source of her tasty meal, the lady declares its sweet taste will be the last to pass her lips, and then leaps to her death with her husband in hot pursuit. The dramatic events of Guillem's biography transpose into Crimp's text with ease, but with key transformations. While the medieval ambience of the tale is retained, the historical specificity of the characters is minimized, and Raimon, his wife Soremonda, and Guillem become the Protector, the Woman, and the Boy, respectively. Meanwhile, although the love-triangle and fatal consequences play out as in the razo, the Boy, crucially, is no longer a singer and maker of songs, but is rather transposed into a manuscript illuminator. Like his musical predecessor, he comes into service of his lord, the Protector, and is commissioned to write not songs, but rather a book, made of parchment, to demonstrate the Protector's worldly authority and possessions. In another twist in Crimp's scenario, Angels who flit between past and present stand witness to events, and in turn recount their observations to the audience.
As is typical for the troubadourian tradition, only modest independent evidence survives for the historical figure of Guillem de Cabestaing, his patron Raimon, and...