Monday, 16 February 2009

George Benjamin Into the Little Hill

The big news about the long-awaited London premiere of George Benjamin's Into the Little Hill was that it wasn't. A power cut minutes into the performance and that was it. Read about it on boulezian and intermezzo's blogs (follow link at right). Intermezzo has pix!

Since many people don't live within taxi distance, the "solution"to the power cut was pretty unfair. Lots of people are out of pocket and not just for tickets. Next time let's hope they do the right thing and offer refunds. There must be insurance for these things.

Luckily, I had cancelled my tickets for the first night and caught the whole show on the second night. For a change I hit the jackpot. This was a wonderful performance with Benjamin himself conducting the London Sinfonietta. Claire Booth and Susan Bickley, often raved here on this blog, sang the vocal parts. This is a new production by The Opera Group. Follow the link below to read more about them and the background to the opera. Their site has photos, video and audio clips - recommended!

Into the Little Hill reminds me of many things - the cartoon/novel Maus, even Michael Jackson's truly creepy song "Ben", where the disturbed kid makes friends with a rat. The story is desolate. A man appears in a little girl's bedroom. He has no eyes. Yet the father does a deal with the sinister stranger and swears on the little girl's life. Seriously sick. The whole opera pivots on ideas of dissimulation, concealment, crawling into dark recesses, nothing is safe from being gnawed away.

This production seems, from pictures, to be more atmospheric than the French one. A circle of black gauze screens orchestra from singers. That's very well thought through, for even the music here is cloaked in disguise. You hear something eerie, or harps or bells. Sure enough, look behind the screens afterwards and 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 is on low toned instruments like bass flute and bass clarinet, whose sensuous, seductive themes weave through the piece like a narcotic night blooming flower. At one point it sure feels like there's a sound so high pitched that the human ear can't quite hear it : but rats can hear at higher frequencies than we can....

Benjamin's writing for voice is a revelation. Unlike Thomas Adès, he doesn't force voices into painful contortion. While the lines are extremely challenging, they flow naturally, almost as speech even when they range up and down octaves. Part of this may be the texts themselves, written thoughtfully, like haiku, allowing the listener's thoughts to form. "The hum of a refrigerator in summer" sings the mezzo, and you know what she means and why it's relevant. Bickley and Booth don't sing "roles" and often their lines are reported speech, echoes perhaps of the ancient tradition of story telling. But there's no mistaking the modernity of this truly disturbing, ambiguous piece. It has a force of its own, which I suspect, even Benjamin and his librettist, Martin Crimp, have channelled as opposed to having consciously written.

What a brilliant idea, too, to pair Into the Little Hill with Harrison Birtwistle's At the Greenwood Side, from 1969. The whole Punch and Judy ethos gives me the creeps, whatever its artistic validity, because it is sick and unhealthy. Perhaps that's the point Birtwistle is making. The mummers and their play are frauds, utterly sordid. You can almost smell their stench in this production. But there's a thin line between ironic comment and the celebration of sickness. At least At the Greenwood Side is concise and gets to the point without too much fuss. And Booth's bag lady murderess is so clearly nuts, she's sad, not vicious, unlike the male characters. Nice touch, too, that the London Sinfonietta are dressed in white tie, which for them is "costume". This distances them from the drunken tramps the actors portray. Pity though that the piece is more speech than music. But then is Birtwistle implying that the barbarians have breached the gate ? This piece feels like graffiti in the meanest sense, smeared on art. Good performance and production though. Perhaps that's why it's so effective (and upsetting).

Here's The Opera Group's link, with photos, video clips and audio samples:

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