Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Berio - Recital I
The Singer – Susan Bickley
The Accompanist – John Constable
The Dresser – Nina Kate
Benjamin - Into the Little Hill
Claire Booth (soprano)
Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)
John Fulljames (director)
Soutra Gilmour (designs)
Jon Clark (lighting)
Franck Ollu (conductor)
If only all the offerings on the Royal Opera House’s main stage were of the quality of this fine double bill at the Linbury Studio Theatre. Some are first-class, of course, yet some could learn a great deal from performance, direction, and choice of repertoire here. I attended the first Covent Garden performance of George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill, last February. There it was programmed, in this same production, with Birtwistle’s music-theatre piece Down by the Greenwood Side. That received a fine performance; unfortunately, a power failure put paid to the Benjamin (ironically, given the threat rats pose to electricity supplies in the work itself), so that I only heard a few minutes of it. Some time after I had left, Into the Little Hill was eventually performed in the Linbury Bar. I wish I had experienced that, but alas it was not to be, so this was essentially my first hearing, albeit with a taster of what was to come.
On the present occasion, an equally apt coupling, albeit entirely different in nature, was Berio’s Recital I, written for Cathy Berberian, but now performed by Susan Bickley. Berio presents a singer who, having arrived on stage to give a recital, realising after she has begun to sing that her pianist is not there. The ‘accompaniment’ to her opening Monteverdi piece – an appropriate nod to the arie antiche tradition, and also a signal of Berio’s love for the composer and Berberian’s expertise in his music – therefore requires an orchestra she conjures up in her mind. We have all done it, though perhaps not in such extreme circumstances – assuming this to be ‘real’: is it, and what does that even mean? Her ‘accompanist’, the ever-dependable – except in terms of the drama – John Constable, comes and goes, but the orchestra is always there, like her neuroses, her failed loves, her attempts to construct some sense from her experience. Through the myriad of musical fragments she presents, we learn something of a relationship that has disintegrated. From folk song to Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene, from ‘Dido’s Lament’ to Pierrot Lunaire, from Meyerbeer to Benjamin, performer, director, and audience must perform complementary but doubtless divergent acts of construction. For instance, hat I had heard Dame Felicity Lott give Poulenc’s Hôtel as a recent encore would perforce make me listen differently from someone not present at that Wigmore Hall recital.
Bickley has always been a versatile artist, just as Berberian was, but this was a challenge indeed, which she surmounted with great aplomb. One could believe in her as a character, as The Singer, too, likewise in Nina Kate’s splendidly observed, wryly ‘alternative’ Dresser. Soutra Gilmour’s costumes and John Fulljames’s direction were all very much of a piece, and the London Sinfonietta’s contribution under Franck Ollu (whom I had previously heard conduct Pascal Dusapin’s Passion in Aix) was typically excellent. At various points, members of the Sinfonietta were called to come on stage, to act, even to exchange instruments. Needless to say, they remained unfazed by such a challenge. Not for nothing are they considered second to none as a new-music ensemble. The final Lied, Berio’s own, was deeply – and yet lightly – moving, just as it should be for the avant-gardist with a sense of humour.
The Sinfonietta’s sterling work, and Ollu’s, continued in Into the Little Hill. If it had taken more than a year before I was able to hear the entire work, my expectations were matched by my experience. The work Benjamin and his librettist, Martin Crimp, present is a modern, equally chilling version of the Pied-Piper of Hamelin story. Here, the Minister, threatened by the populace, gives into its demands that the rats, who, he personally believes, have a place in society, be exterminated. He gains re-election, to the ‘grateful shriek’ of the crowd, by promising the blank-faced Stranger, whom he discovers in his daughter’s bedroom ‘stooped over his sleeping child’, a large sum of money in return for ridding society of the rodent menace. When payment time comes, the Minister welches on his debt, the Stranger takes the city’s children away, the Minister’s daughter included; the Minister’s Wife hears the children sing that they are now ‘inside the Little Hill,’ which is now their new home. New Labour all over, really; if only that nightmare had been so eloquently expressed, and had been over with in just under three-quarters of an hour...
Benjamin’s sinuous score is concise yet generous, sharp-edged yet beautiful. The pain of the Stranger’s flute has a multiplicity of meanings for us, amongst which one should doubtless account contemporary obsession with ‘the paedophile’. As a parable of the disgusting corruption of modern political life, this short opera seems to me well-nigh perfectly judged. Bickley was now joined by Claire Booth. Between them, two female voices must narrate, take the part of various characters, and act as the crowd. One would have thought this the easiest thing in the world, such was the success with which they accomplished it. The abstraction of the set permitted us to concentrate upon the unfolding drama, but was much more than a blank stage; it shaped, enclosed, enabled. Booth’s Child will linger uncomfortably long in the mind, as will the final cries: ‘And the deeper we burrow the brighter his [the Stranger’s] music burns. Can’t you see? Can’t you see? Can’t you see?’ I was taken with Crimp’s description of the librettist as former of magnesium ribbon, whilst the composer must light it with pure oxygen, that it might burn with intense white light. This role, it seemed to me, he fulfilled admirably, save for a misjudged, jarring ‘by who [sic]’, in order to rhyme with ‘you’. If that, however, is the only fault I can find with the evening, and I think it is, then The Opera Group, ROH2, and all those involved in these performances are justly entitled to their laurels.
Good news: Crimp and Benjamin are writing a new opera, to receive its first performance at the 2012 Aix-en-Provence Festival.