Recital I / Into the Little Hill

Recital I
George Benjamin
Into the Little Hill [Libretto by Martin Crimp]

Recital I:
The Singer – Susan Bickley
The Accompanist – John Constable
The Dresser – Nina Kate

Into the Little Hill:
Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)
Claire Booth (soprano)

London Sinfonietta
Franck Ollu

John Fulljames – Director
Soutra Gilmour – Designer
Jon Clark – Lighting
Mick McNicholas – Projection designs

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 23 July, 2010
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

This coupling of 40-minute-long but otherwise very different music-theatre/opera creations proved engrossing and stimulating.

“Recital I” (1972) was written by Luciano Berio (1925-2003) for his then ex-wife Cathy Berberian. It is in a sense a one-woman show, except for the not-insignificant appearances of The Accompanist and The Dresser. At the beginning the piano is being polished, the floor raked – yes, raked, for this will become the dark earth for George Benjamin’s work. The Singer arrives for the recital, her mind on other things, trying to write a letter, its pages being discarded. She starts an aria by Monteverdi and breaks off abruptly when she notices that her pianist has failed to show. Here is a diva in despair, and she begins to recollect her repertoire, however fleetingly, her past haunting her, her troubles becoming more and more exposed.

Behind a large red curtain is an ensemble of strings, winds and brass, acting as both protagonist and commentator, its contributions shimmering and acerbic, Berio absorbing and returning many musical quotations – from Bach, Purcell, Ravel, Canteloube (the best-known song of the Auvergne), Schubert, Richard Strauss, Mahler, Donizetti, Prokofiev (the ‘Field of the Dead’ lament from “Alexander Nevsky”) and a whole host more, not least a splash of English folksong and a few bars of Viennese waltz – but not as a string of unrelated if familiar ditties but as a masterly web of memorabilia from a composer who knew the repertoire and how to plunder it in a ‘belonging’ way.

“Recital I” is biting and witty, a black cabaret, the quotations from several centuries of music as ‘real’ for Berio as is his original music, the scoring vivid and colourful and including an accordion-like electric organ wheezing and cutting. Susan Bickley was magnificent as the disillusioned, on-the-edge singer (in fact Berio thought of this role as that of an actress playing a singer), remembering, questioning, lecturing, the audience addressed as a part of the action. John Constable (pianist of the London Sinfonietta), playing and acting, entered onto the spirit with accomplishment, as did Nina Kate in the mute but descriptive role of The Dresser.

“Into the Little Hill” (2006, award-winning and already recorded, on Nimbus) is a hypnotic re-telling of the Pied Piper of Hamelin story. The Piper (here re-christened Stranger) does the Minister’s bidding and rids the town of a plague of rats. Payment is reneged upon, so he leads the children into the little hill, thus to be heard only as voices, and never to be seen again. Issues are raised – including political chicanery, and immigration (the invasion of the rats), George Benjamin’s subtle and fastidious music (the scoring including banjo, cimbalom and mandolin) sustaining the whole remarkably well and with necessary ambiguity.

Claire Booth and Susan Bickley (quite a night for the latter) multi-tasked with flair – a crowd, the Minister, Stranger, and the Minister’s Child (the latter the most affected by the drowned rats), a mix of narration and characterisation. Just as the words of the Berio (multi-lingual in his case, although the spoken-word is helpfully in English) had been projected onto the red curtain, thus Martin Crimp’s text for “Into the Little Hill” could be picked out on free-standing circles. This together with moody lighting helps create a tense and mysterious atmosphere, which Benjamin’s precisely coloured and accented score perfectly complements. The composer was in attendance and seemed delighted with the performance

Franck Ollu conducted without fuss but with assurance, the members of the London Sinfonietta totally at-one with these composers’ demands. A triumph for The Opera Group and ROH2.

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