To the Royal Opera house on Saturday for a performance of George Benjamin's new opera Into the Little Hill. This was being performed, in a double bill with Sir Harrison Birtwistle's Down by the Greenwood side in the Linbury Studio by the Opera Company with the London Sinfonietta. Both productions were by John Fulljames with designs by Soutra Gilmour.
They opened with the Birtwistle, which seems to have become something of a period piece. Set for soprano (Claire Booth) and four actors (Pip Donaghy, Wela Frasier, Robert Hastie and Julian Forsyth), it pits the soprano against the actors. The soprano sings a series of laments based on folk-songs about women murdering their illegitimate children. The actors, using rhythmical speech, act out an old mummers play about St. George and Bold Slasher. Fulljames updates things, making them all down and outs and subverts things by having St. George played by a black actor (Wela Frasier) and Bold Slasher (Robert Hastie) played as a skin-head. The work mines the seam of violence (in the action and in the music) which appears in Punch and Judy. But it seemed a strange, rag-bag of ideas; a rather period theatre-piece. My only complaint about the performance was that we couldn't hear any of Claire Booth's words.
After the interval we had Benjamin's new opera. Much anticipated, I may add. We had to wait some 15 or so after the end of the interval before the piece started. The set was abstract, imaginative and obviously a bit tricky to set up, the shale covering the stage seemed to give serious problems! Still once underway the piece enchanted. The 2 singers were Claire Booth and Susan Bickley and they played everyone, including the chorus. The plot is essentially The Pied Piper of Hamlin, a little update with an extremely lucid libretto by Martin Crimp. Then 10 to 15 minutes in, the lights failed. After a further 10 minutes we were ushered into the bar (where the lights were still on!) and offered a free drink. But by now it was nearly 9.30pm and it being 14th February, my partner and I had a dinner date. So I'm afraid we decamped. Eventually the performance recommenced in the bar itself.
I can see that I will have to wait even further for a proper hearing of Benjamin's opera. This is shame as it has all the markings of a fine and lucid piece. In the programme book, Benjamin talks about the orchestration being transparent so that the vocal lines can be in the foreground, without struggle. From the section I heard, this is very true as the singers got the words over beautifully and the lovely orchestration still told.
Also in the programme book, librettist Martin Crimp talks about how a text for music should have something missing; that a libretto should not draw attention to itself. That text for music can afford to stand still (whereas a play cannot), as music can provide the motion. Crimp's article was a testament to intelligent and lucid libretto design, it should be essential reading for all trainee librettists!