Down by the Greenwood Side / Into the Little Hill

Down by the Greenwood Side [Libretto by Michael Nyman]
George Benjamin
Into the Little Hill [Libretto by Martin Crimp]

Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano) & Claire Booth (soprano) [Into the Little Hill]

Mrs Green – Claire Booth
Father Christmas – Pip Donaghy
St George – Wela Frasier
Bold Slasher – Robert Hastie
Dr Blood / Jack Finney – Julian Forsyth

London Sinfonietta
George Benjamin

John Fulljames – Director
Soutra Gilmour – Designer
Jon Clark – Lighting
Jami Reid-Quarrell – Choreorapher
Mick McNicholas – Projection designs

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 18 February, 2009
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

A power cut in the Linbury Studio meant that the first night (the first of four), on 14 February, of George Benjamin’s opera “Into the Little Hill”, was, after a bit of swift reorganisation, given in the Linbury bar. The other work in Opera Group’s double bill, Harrison Birtwistle’s “Down by the Greenwood Side”, went off without a hitch, before the fuses blew. Apparently the ad hoc performance was a huge success – triumph out of adversity – but I’m glad not to have missed John Fulljames’s outstandingly good production.

George Benjamin’s first opera was written in 2006. There is a Parisian production that has been playing on the Continent during the past two years, so word of the work’s high quality has been getting around. I suspect that Fulljames’s new staging will go a long way to reclaiming Benjamin’s music for British audiences – certainly the sold-out London run showed how seriously this 49-year-old composer is taken this side of the Channel.

“Into the Little Hill” is Benjamin’s and librettist Martin Crimp’s subversive retelling of the Pied Piper of Hamelin story, where the Piper (here the Stranger) does the Minister’s bidding by getting rid of a plague of rats; but when he comes to collect his money, payment is denied and he leads all the children into the little hill, and they are never seen again.

Their version suggests political opportunism and double-dealing, a blind eye turned on the problems of mass immigration (the rats are outsiders whose presence is barely acknowledged), and the mysterious power of music, with both composer and librettist managing to sustain a remarkable and lingering feeling of ambiguity.

The two singers, Claire Booth and Susan Bickley, conjured up crowd scenes, as well as singing the roles of the duplicitous Minister, whose re-election depends on the removal of the rats, the mysterious, faceless Stranger, and the Minister’s Child, and they brought them to life with beguiling ease and immediacy. Crimp’s libretto does a subtly judged balancing act between narration and characterisation, at once blankly objective, then slipping into high drama (as in the Child being traumatised by the rats leaving town). Elements of the text were projected onto the set of three, free-standing circles, a deft piece of direction that gave this eight-section, 40-minute work the lightest touch of structure and direction. The words both fed and were fed by Benjamin’s extraordinarily apt, succinct and atmospheric music, an astonishingly original, precise yet veiled soundworld – Benjamin’s evocation of the children’s empty beds and distant voices was one of the eeriest, most desolate things I’ve heard, beautifully played by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by the composer.

Like all the best short stories, every gesture, every detail of this elliptical, layered work is there for a reason, and the thought that music of this calibre is still being written was very satisfying. It is a major addition to contemporary opera, indeed all opera. Don’t miss it.

Birtwistle’s “Down by the Greenwood Side” is a late-1960s, also 40-minute-long music-theatre piece that precedes his better-known “Punch and Judy”, both works sharing the composer’s relentlessly abrasive, grunting, squealing early style of writing. A mother (Claire Booth again, showing off her awesome range and coloratura) sings versions of the folk-tale in which she butchers her two children, only to encounter their ghosts years later, interspersed with an old mummers play (spoken and danced) in which Father Christmas comperes the fight-to-the-death between St George and Bold Slasher. The way Birtwistle portrays the weird non-sequiturs of folk ritual is impressive, as is Fulljames’s modern, wasteland Beckettian production, but, as with “Punch and Judy”, it’s a relief when it finishes, and it doesn’t stand up well against “Into the Little Hill”.

  • Touring to Oxford Playhouse (01865 305305) Sunday February 22; to The Anvil, Basingstoke (01256 844244) Thursday February 26; and Howard Assembly Room at Opera North, Leeds (0844 848 2727) Saturday & Sunday March 7 & 8

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