Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Written on Skin: the Melos Sinfonia take George Benjamin's opera to St Petersburg

As I approach St Cyprian’s Church in Marylebone, musical sounds which are at once strange and sensuous surf the air. Inside I find seventy or so instrumentalists and singers nestled somewhat crowdedly between the pillars of the nave, rehearsing George Benjamin’s much praised 2012 opera, Written on Skin.

Classical Opera/The Mozartists celebrate 20 years of music-making

Classical Opera celebrated 20 years of music-making and story-telling with a characteristically ambitious and eclectic sequence of musical works at the Barbican Hall. Themes of creation and renewal were to the fore, and after a first half comprising a variety of vocal works and short poems, ‘Classical Opera’ were succeeded by their complementary alter ego, ‘The Mozartists’, in the second part of the concert for a rousing performance of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony - a work described by Page as ‘in many ways the most iconic work in the repertoire’.

Bampton Classical Opera Young Singers’ Competition 2017

Bampton Classical Opera’s third Young Singers’ Competition takes place this autumn, culminating in a public final at Holywell Music Room, Oxford on November 19. 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.

Peter Kellner announced as winner of 2018 Wigmore Hall/Independent Opera Voice Fellowship

Independent Opera (IO) was very present at the Wigmore Hall last week. On Thursday 5 October, IO announced 26 year old Slovakian bass Peter Kellner as the winner of the 2018 Wigmore Hall/IO Voice Fellowship, a two-year award of £10,000 plus professional mentoring from IO and the Wigmore Hall. A graduate of the Konzervatórium Košice Timonova and the Mozarteum University Salzburg, Peter is currently a member of Oper Graz in Austria where later this season he will sing the title role of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Colline in Puccini’s La bohème.

Back to Baroque and to the battle lines with English Touring Opera

Romeo and Juliet, Rinaldo and Armida, Ramadès and Aida: love thwarted by warring countries and families is a perennial trope of literature, myth and history. Indeed, ‘Love and war are all one,’ declared Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote, a sentiment which seems to be particularly exemplified by the world of baroque opera with its penchant for plundering Classical Greek and Roman myths for their extreme passions and conflicts. English Touring Opera’s 2017 autumn tour takes us back to the Baroque and back to the battle-lines.

Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Christoph Willibald von Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice opened the 2017–18 season at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Michelle DeYoung, Mahler Symphony no 3 London

The Third Coming ! Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted Mahler Symphony no 3 with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall with Michelle DeYoung, the Philharmonia Voices and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir. It was live streamed worldwide, an indication of just how important this concert was, for it marks the Philharmonia's 34-year relationship with Salonen.

King Arthur at the Barbican: a semi-opera for the 'Brexit Age'

Purcell’s and Dryden’s King Arthur: or the British Worthy presents ‘problems’ for directors. It began life as a propaganda piece, Albion and Albanius, in 1683, during the reign of Charles II, but did not appear on stage as King Arthur until 1691 when William of Orange had ascended to the British Throne to rule as William III alongside his wife Mary and the political climate had changed significantly.

Elder conducts Lohengrin

There have been dozens of capable, and more than capable, recordings of Lohengrin. Among the most-often praised are the Sawallisch/Bayreuth (1962), Kempe (1963), Solti (1985), and Abbado (1991). Recording a major Wagner opera involves heavy costs that a record company may be unable to recoup.

Anne Schwanewilms sings Schreker, Schubert, Liszt and Korngold

On a day when events in Las Vegas cast a shadow over much of the news this was not the most comfortable recital to sit through for many reasons. The chosen repertoire did, at times, feel unduly heavy - and very Germanic - but it was also unevenly sung.

The Life to Come: a new opera by Louis Mander and Stephen Fry

It began ‘with a purely obscene fancy of a Missionary in difficulties’. So E.M. Forster wrote to Siegfried Sassoon in August 1923, of his short story ‘The Life to Come’ - the title story of a collection that was not published until 1972, two years after Forster’s death.

‘Never was such advertisement for a film!’: Thomas Kemp and the OAE present a film of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier at the Oxford Lieder Festival

Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier was premiered at the Dresden Semperoper on 26th January 1911. Almost fifteen years to the day, on 10th January 1926, the theatre hosted another Rosenkavalier ‘premiere’, with the screening of a silent film version of the opera, directed by Robert Wiene - best known for his expressionistic masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The two-act scenario had been devised by Hugo von Hoffmansthal and the screening was accompanied by a symphony orchestra which Strauss himself conducted.

Premiere Recording: Mayr’s Telemaco nell’isola di Calipso (1797)

No sooner had I drafted my review of Simon Mayr’s Medea in Corinto,

Aida opens the season at ENO

Director Phelim McDermott’s new Aida at ENO seems to have been conceived more in terms of what it will look like rather than what the opera is or might be ‘about’. And, it certainly does look good. Designer Tom Pye - with whom McDermott worked for ENO’s Akhnaten last year (alongside his other Improbable company colleague, costume designer Kevin Pollard) - has again conjured striking tableaux and eye-catching motifs, and a colour scheme which balances sumptuous richness with shadow and mystery.

La Traviata in San Francisco

A beautifully sung Traviata in British stage director John Copley’s 1987 production, begging the question is this grand old (30 years) production the SFO mise en scène for all times.

The Judas Passion: Sally Beamish and David Harsent offer new perspectives

Was Judas a man ‘both vile and justifiably despised: an agent of the Devil, or a man who God-given task was to set in train an event that would be the salvation of Humankind’? This is the question at the heart of Sally Beamish’s The Judas Passion, commissioned jointly by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Philharmonia Baroque of San Francisco.

Choral at Cadogan: The Tallis Scholars open a new season

As The Tallis Scholars processed onto the Cadogan Hall platform, for the opening concert of this season’s Choral at Cadogan series, there were some unfamiliar faces among its ten members - or faces familiar but more usually seen in other contexts.

Stars of Lyric Opera 2017, Millennium Park, Chicago

As a prelude to the 2017-18 season Lyric Opera of Chicago presented its annual concert, Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park, during the last weekend. A number of those who performed in this event will be featured in roles during the coming season.

A Verlaine Songbook

Back in the LP days, if a singer wanted to show some sophistication, s/he sometimes put out an album of songs by famous composers set to the poems of one poet: for example, Phyllis Curtin’s much-admired 1964 disc of Debussy and Fauré songs to poems by Verlaine, with pianist Ryan Edwards (available now as a CD from VAI).

Die Zauberflöte at the ROH: radiant and eternal

Watching David McVicar’s 2003 production of Die Zauberflöte at the Royal Opera House - its sixth revival - for the third time, I was struck by how discerningly John MacFarlane’s sumptuous designs, further enhanced by Paule Constable’s superbly evocative lighting, communicate the dense and rich symbolism of Mozart’s Singspiel.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Claire Booth (lying) and Susan Bickley (standing) [Photo by Alaistair Muir courtesy of The Royal Opera]
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.

George Benjamin: Into the Little Hill

The Royal Opera

Above: Claire Booth (lying) and Susan Bickley (standing) [Photo by Alaistair Muir courtesy of The Royal Opera]

 

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.”

recital-104.pngSusan 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.

Anne Ozorio

Cast:

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

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):