26 Jul 2010
George Benjamin: Into the Little Hill, Linbury, London
George Benjamin is the leading British composer of his generation. Into the Little Hill premiered in 2006, has been acclaimed a masterpiece.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Following highly successful UK premières of Salieri’s Falstaff (in 2003) and Trofonio’s Cave (2015), this summer Bampton Classical Opera will present the first UK performances since the late 18th century of arguably his most popular success: the bitter comedy of marital feuding, The School of Jealousy (La scuola de’ gelosi). The production will be designed and directed by Jeremy Gray and conducted by Anthony Kraus from Opera North. The English translation will be by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray. The cast includes Nathalie Chalkley (soprano), Thomas Herford (tenor) and five singers making their Bampton débuts:, Rhiannon Llewellyn (soprano), Kate Howden (mezzo-soprano), Alessandro Fisher (tenor), Matthew Sprange (baritone) and Samuel Pantcheff (baritone). Alessandro was the joint winner of the Kathleen Ferrier Competition 2016.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
Written at a time when both his theatrical business and physical health were in a bad way, Handel’s Faramondo was premiered at the King’s Theatre in January 1738, fared badly and sank rapidly into obscurity where it languished until the late-twentieth century.
Fabio Luisi conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in Brahms A German Requiem op 45 and Schubert, Symphony no 8 in B minor D759 ("Unfinished").at the Barbican Hall, London.
The atmosphere was a bit electric on February 25 for the opening night of Leoš Janàček’s 1921 domestic tragedy, and not entirely in a good way.
Applications are now open for the Bampton Classical Opera Young Singers’ Competition 2017. This biennial competition was first launched in 2013 to celebrate the company’s 20th birthday, and is aimed at identifying the finest emerging young opera singers currently working in the UK.
Each March France's splendid Opéra de Lyon mounts a cycle of operas that speak to a chosen theme. Just now the theme is Mémoires -- mythic productions of famed, now dead, late 20th century stage directors. These directors are Klaus Michael Grüber (1941-2008), Ruth Berghaus (1927-1996), and Heiner Müller (1929-1995).
Handel’s Partenope (1730), written for his first season at the King’s Theatre, is a paradox: an anti-heroic opera seria. It recounts a fictional historic episode with a healthy dose of buffa humour as heroism is held up to ridicule. Musicologist Edward Dent suggested that there was something Shakespearean about Partenope - and with its complex (nonsensical?) inter-relationships, cross-dressing disguises and concluding double-wedding it certainly has a touch of Twelfth Night about it. But, while the ‘plot’ may seem inconsequential or superficial, Handel’s music, as ever, probes the profundities of human nature.
The latest instalment of Wigmore Hall’s ambitious two-year project, ‘Schubert: The Complete Songs’, was presented by German tenor Christoph Prégardien and pianist Julius Drake.
On March 10, 2017, San Diego Opera presented an unusual version of Georges Bizet’s Carmen called La Tragédie de Carmen (The Tragedy of Carmen).
For his farewell production as director of opera at the Royal Opera House, Kasper Holten has chosen Wagner’s only ‘comedy’, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: an opera about the very medium in which it is written.
The dramatic strength that Stage Director Michael Scarola drew from his Pagliacci cast was absolutely amazing. He gave us a sizzling rendition of the libretto, pointing out every bit of foreshadowing built into the plot.
A skewering of the preening pretentiousness of the Pre-Raphaelites and Aesthetes of the late-nineteenth century, Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1881 operetta Patience outlives the fashion that fashioned it, and makes mincemeat of mincing dandies and divas, of whatever period, who value style over substance, art over life.
Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught demonstrated a relaxed, easy manner and obvious enjoyment of both the music itself and its communication to the audience during this varied Rosenblatt Series concert at the Wigmore Hall. Erraught and her musical partners for the evening - clarinettist Ulrich Pluta and pianist James Baillieu - were equally adept at capturing both the fresh lyricism of the exchanges between voice and clarinet in the concert arias of the first half of the programme and clinching precise dramatic moods and moments in the operatic arias that followed the interval.
This Sunday the Metropolitan Opera will feature as part of the BBC Radio 3 documentary, Opera Across the Waves, in which critic and academic Flora Willson explores how opera is engaging new audiences. The 45-minute programme explores the roots of global opera broadcasting and how in particular, New York’s Metropolitan Opera became one of the most iconic and powerful producers of opera.
On February 25, 2017, in Tucson and on the following March 3 in Phoenix, Arizona Opera presented its first world premiere, Craig Bohmler and Steven Mark Kohn’s Riders of the Purple Sage.
During the past few seasons, English Touring Opera has confirmed its triple-value: it takes opera to the parts of the UK that other companies frequently fail to reach; its inventive, often theme-based, programming and willingness to take risks shine a light on unfamiliar repertory which invariably offers unanticipated pleasures; the company provides a platform for young British singers who are easing their way into the ‘industry’, assuming a role that latterly ENO might have been expected to fulfil.
The first production of Ryan Wigglesworth’s first opera, based upon Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, is clearly a major event in English National Opera’s somewhat trimmed-down season. Wigglesworth, who serves also as conductor and librettist, professes to have been obsessed with the play for more than twenty years, and one can see why The Winter’s Tale, with its theatrical ‘set-pieces’ - the oracle scene, the tempest, the miracle of a moving statue - and its grandiose emotions, dominated as the play is by Leontes’ obsessively articulated, over-intellectualized jealousy, would invite operatic adaptation.
George Benjamin is the leading British composer of his generation. Into the Little Hill premiered in 2006, has been acclaimed a masterpiece.
This revival, at the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House, London, confirmed its place as a cornerstone of modern British repertoire.
It’s very loosely based on the fairy tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, where a conformist community rat on the piper who rids them of vermin. So he takes their children into a “little hill”. The one act opera is disturbing because it treats the story as nightmare.
Into the Little Hill operates on many different levels at once. There’s a political element.The mob violently demand the extermination of all rats, and the Minister sells his principles for votes. There’s a suggestion that the rats aren’t rats but other humans. As the Child says, they wear clothes and carry suitcases — an echo of the Holocaust? There’s social commentary, and the spectre of child abduction, all the more disturbing as the father is implicated.
Nightmares are powerful because they reveal themselves through portents, subliminally working on the subconscious. This is a work that defies classification. Quite likely Benjamin and his librettist Martin Crimp can’t explain its full portent, because it operates on the unconscious, on a subliminal level which cold logic cannot reach. That’s why it’s endlessly intriguing. Perhaps the way to get into Into the Little Hill is to let your intuition lead you.
The Minister’s Child appears to her mother in a chink of light.”Come home” says the mother. No, says the child, “Our home is under the earth. With the angel under the earth” What can that mean, no-one knows. But as the child says “The deeper we burrow, the brighter his music burns”. “Can’t you see?” cries the child. The child sees, because it doesn’t carry the millstone of received wisdom.
Into the Little Hill operates like a half-remembered dream, flotsam flowing out of the unconscious, to be processed in the listeners mind. Rats invade the town, eating grain and concrete, destroying the foundations of social order, Later, the children disappear into the bowels of the earth. “We’re burrowing” sings the child, “streams of hot metal, ribbons of magnesium, particles of light”.
A “man with no eyes, no nose, no ears” materializes in the Minister’s little daughter’s bedroom. He invades the sanctuary, mysteriously, disturbingly.. He is powerful because he can breach all defences, even the Minister’s office. “With music I can reach right in /march slaves to the factory/ or patiently unravel the clouds” Sinister as he is, he’s morally neutral — “The choice is yours” he says to the Minister.
The whole opera pivots on ideas of dissimulation, concealment, crawling into dark recesses. Nothing is safe. So the music here is cloaked in disguise. You hear something eerie, or harps or bells. Sure enough, there’s a cimbalom right in the heart of the orchestra. You hear something tense, tinny and shrill: it’s a banjo, and conventional strings being played like banjos, strings plucked high up the shaft, not bowed. Much emphasis on low-toned instruments like bass flute and bass clarinet, whose sensuous, seductive themes weave through the piece like a narcotic night-blooming flower.
Susan Bickley and Claire Booth sing. The parts aren’t defined, as such. Their voices interchange, with each other and with the “voices” in the orchestra, adding to the unsettling, dream-like effect. Bickley and Booth are the foremost interpreters of modern music in this country. They are superb. Good as the recording on Nimbus is, the singers there don’t come close to Bickley and Booth, who have lived this piece for some time. If Bickley, Booth and the London Sinfonietta record this, their version will be the one to get.
Their expertise matters, because this singing has to be approached with an almost intuitive understanding of how the vocal parts interact with the music. Both are attuned to the inner logic of the piece, so the ever-changing balance flows seamlessly. Although the text is conversational, the syntax is surreal. At several points, Booth has to “sing” at such a high pitch she’s almost inaudible. It takes physical effort. She braces herself, so as not to strain her voice beyond the limits. Humans might not hear such pitches, but rats can.
The staging, by The Opera Group, (director, John Fulljames), fits the music and the semi-narrative. The Man with no Face operates through music : the London Sinfonietta play on stage, behind a gauze curtain, vaguely visible behind the action, very much part of the concept as the orchestra is so important in this opera. The stage is dominated by a huge circular frame. “I can make rats drop from the rim of the world” says the man with no eyes. “But the world, says the minister, is round”. “The world — says the man — is the shape my music makes it.”
Susan Bickley [Photo by Robert Workman]
The floor is scattered with black, soft objects. When I attended the performance at Aldeburgh in June, I was close enough to touch and smell the acrid stench of rubber. It’s a striking extra dimension. By the time the production reached London the smell was almost gone. It was less oppressive, but gone too was the extra element of menace. Like music, smell can’t be seen but it operates on the mind.
Into the Little Hill was preceded by Luciano Berio’s Recital 1, It’s a tour de force, testing a singer’s full range. It’s a stream of consciousness monologue. Susan Bickley was magnificent, singing for nearly 45 minutes. Snatches of Lieder and Opera rise to the surface, receding as her mind moves on to other things. It’s tragic, for the singer is desolate, looking back on a lifetime of loneliness.
Since Berio wrote it for Cathy Berberian long after their marriage ended, it’s bittersweet, but also strangely affectionate. The interplay between singer and orchestra reflects the interplay between composer and muse. Many in-jokes, such as when Bickley sings “A composer is socially embarrassing when he tries to speak”. But that’s the whole point, for Berio speaks through the orchestration, The piece is an elaborate puzzle-game, tightly scored with intricate key changes and modulations.
Berio plays with illusion. At one stage, members of the orchestra emerge to share space with Bickley. They start to play, but the sounds are grotesquely distorted. Then they exchange instruments. What do these musicians normally play? This was the London Sinfonietta, Britain’s best contemporary music orchestra, an ensemble of virtuosi. Berio is having a laugh, for the rest of the piece is so sophisticated that bad players would be completely lost.
Bickley leans towards the audience, trying to get them to respond to her directly. I very nearly did. Berio and Berberian would have been thrilled, for part of the concept behind this piece is the relationship between illusion and reality. “Isn’t all life there?”, declaims Bickley, with a diva-like sweep of her arms.
For more information please see the Royal Opera House site here.
George Benjamin: Into the Little Hill (Martin Crimp: libretto)
Susan Bickley, mezzo-soprano; Claire Booth, soprano. London Sinfonietta. Frank Ollu: conductor.
Luciano Berio: Recital 1
Susan Bickley: The Singer; John Constable: The Accompanist; Nina Kate: The Dresser. The Opera Group. John Fulljames: Director. Soutra Gilmour: Set and Costume Designer. Jon Clark: Lighting.
Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London. 23rd July 2010