Blond Eckbert

Small Tales, tall tales
Blond Eckbert

The Opera Group:

Eckbert – Owen Gilhooly
Berthe, his wife – Heather Shipp
Walther / Hugo / Old Woman – Mark Wilde
A bird – Claire Wild

The Opera Group Ensemble
Patrick Bailey

John Fulljames – director

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 17 June, 2006
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The enterprising and hard-working Opera Group (back at the Linbury at the end of July with its production of Shostakovich’s The Nose, almost in a direct clash with the Mariinsky’s at the London Coliseum!) brought this perfectly conceived project to Bow Street. If it did not persuade me fully in performance, it certainly scores heavily for innovation.

Taking a newly minted chamber re-orchestration commissioned from Judith Weir of her 1994 English National Opera commission “Blond Eckbert” as its starting point, the Opera Group created an evening of German fairy tales.

In the first half, Weir’s 2002 “Really?” (which sets three tales by the Brothers Grimm and Johan Peter Herbel) and Kenneth Hesketh’s new commission “Small Tales, tall tales” (finding inspiration from four of the brothers’ work and suitably subtitled ‘A Grimm sequence’) came together for a seamless telling of tales.

Involving all five singers (in matching loose cream tops and bottoms) and simply set on and around a rug, with the instrumental players to the right of the stage, these little narrative miniatures – about a man, his son and their donkey; a miraculous pot that produces porridge on demand but causes problems when the command to stop is not used; an explanation of eternity; a wander through Schlauraffen Land; the ungrateful son’s tale of hiding the roast chicken when his father comes round who gets his just desserts when the chicken turns into a toad; the singing bone (very similar to the story in Mahler’s “Das klagende Lied”); and, finally, a tale still to be completed about a golden key that stops just as it is about to open the chest – are beautiful vignettes.

Whether in Weir’s utterly transparent scoring, where the merest hint of musical timbre suffices, or in Hesketh’s more vibrant soundscape, full of cheeky wit, and with the most winning and open of performances from the singers and speakers, this was forty minutes of pure heaven.

Unfortunately – and it may have been my fault for sitting in on the interval and watching the set being constructed for the main work of the evening – I was rather quickly turned off by the production of “Blond Eckbert” that ensued. Although the music entices just as much as in the full orchestral version (available now on NMC, having originally appeared on Collins Classics), the mythic quality of the tale I felt was completely constricted by its modern setting – with its series of blinds enclosing a long sitting room with drinks-trolley, couch and lamp-stand.

I’m afraid I took against the staging after the admittedly neat video opening title sequence, and any hope of the tale’s organic horror of a husband late realisation that he’d married his sister, evaporated from this concept staging.

Given the first half’s simplicity – by which it spoke timelessly – the second half was a grave disappointment. Beautifully played and sung though – even if it couldn’t redeem the production’s faults.

  • Further performances: Friday 30 June, 7.30 p.m., Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester; Sunday 2 July, 7.30 p.m., Cheltenham Music Festival; Saturday 8 July, 7.30 p.m., Oxford Playhouse; Saturday 29 July, 7.30 p.m., The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham

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