Sunday, 15 February 2009

Birtwistle - Down by the Greenwood Side/Benjamin - Into the Little Hill, ROH2, 14 February 2009

Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

Sir Harrison Birtwistle – Down by the Greenwood Side

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

George Benjamin – Into the Little Hill

Claire Booth (mezzo-soprano)
Susan Bickley (soprano)

The Opera Group
John Fulljames (director)
Soutra Gilmour (designs)
Jon Clark (lighting)
Jami Reid-Quarrell (choreography)
Mick McNicholas (projection designs)

London Sinfonietta
George Benjamin (conductor)

As fiascos go, this opening night deserves reognition. My observation has nothing to do with the works or the performances; indeed, one must feel a great deal of sympathy for the artists involved. It was clear that things were not going quite to plan when, following rather a late start, the interval scene-changing – which did not look as though it involved very much – continued long after everyone had been reseated. Then, part of the way through the first of the two parts of George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill, everything suddenly stopped. To begin with, it was not clear, at least to me, that this was not intentional. Much of the work had been shrouded in relative darkness in any case, but eventually an announcement informed us that the theatre had suffered a power cut. These things happen: bad luck but probably no one’s fault. The protracted scene changes made me wonder, though. We sat in the darkness for some time, until another announcement was made. It would take another ten minutes, so could we patient? Fair enough and, given the absurd Health-‘n’-Safety regimes under which we all must now (New) labour, one could understand why we were told we should have to stay in our seats rather than repair to the bar. Eventually a further announcement was made, to the effect that everything was being done to rectify the situation, it was firmly intended that the performance should resume, but this was going to require more time. With the help of ushers and their torches, we should now make our way to the bar, where a complimentary drink would greet us. What then happened, or rather did not happen, was the most annoying aspect. Although we had been told that further updates would be afforded us in the foyer, the management fell silent. So far as we could tell from the outside screens, nothing had been solved on the stage. ROH2 really needs to get its act together. Eventually, one hour after the performance should have finished, I cut my losses and headed back to King’s Cross. Needless to say, First Capital Connect, or whatever it styles itself nowadays, then added to the ‘experience’, having cancelled a good number of trains on account of what is euphemistically termed a ‘winter timetable’.

For what it is worth, Birtwistle’s Down by the Greenwood Side received a good performance, alert to so many of the preoccupations that have informed the composer’s subsequent work, especially the often-violent re-telling of myth and its transformation when viewed from differing perspectives. Apart from one forgivable slip, Claire Booth handled the only sung role with the expected, yet still commendable facility. The actors all seemed secure in the placing of their lines and performed well on stage. Michael Nyman’s weirdly unsettling text was audible and meaningful throughout. Benjamin conducted the London Sinfonietta with evident appreciation of the score’s Stravinskian antecedents: The Soldier’s Tale loomed very large. A little more violence would not have gone amiss but on the whole this was a sound musical account. John Fulljames set the action in a derelict children’s playground. Mrs Green was a bag lady and the rest of the cast had more than a little of the vagrant to them. Perhaps this is where we can still catch a glimpse of a non-idealised English past: certainly better this than the blandness of Vaughan Williams and the cow-pat school. The ritualistic non-realism of the direction, within this ‘realistic’ setting, suited the work very well. Artificiality can often be more ‘real’ than the reactionary ‘story-telling’ some opera-audiences apparently desire.

After Birtwistle’s music-theatre piece, Benjamin’s chamber opera started off well. Little of the action is staged – at least in the fragment we saw. Indeed, the recounting of Martin Crimp’s political fairy-tale parable by two female singers seemed more akin to a cantata than an opera. Again, one might say that artifice is problematised and exploited. Benjamin, both as composer and as conductor. drew beguiling sonorities from the London Sinfonietta. And once again, Stravinsky did not seem so very distant, especially when one heard the cimbalom; nor, on at least one occasion, did Berg. The singers seemed at home in his idiom, far from ungrateful to the human voice. The production did not amount to much more at this stage than projection of key words and phrases on stage. But then, of course, proceedings came to a halt. I hope that subsequent audiences will be more fortunate and look forward to hearing from them.

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