Down by the Greenwood Side, Harrison Birtwistle; Into the Little Hill, George Benjamin

ROH2, The Opera Group and London Sinfonietta

Oxford Playhouse, 22 February 2009

An interesting, if surreal evening was had at the London premiere of this intriguing double-bill when a power failure ensured that the first London performance of George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill took place in the bar, rather than the Linbury Studio of the ROH. This untimely misfortune doesn’t appear to have done this new production much harm with positive press coverage rebounding from all corners of the globe – a hundred and one ‘and finally’ sections of news bulletins chiming to a positive story about contemporary opera. Luckily enough, there were no such high jinks at the Playhouse in Oxford for the first night of the subsequent national tour, though perhaps the slightly swelled audience caught a whiff of potential bar-related shenanigans so came in increased numbers. Nevertheless, a large and appreciative audience enjoyed two striking contemporary operas (or should that be music theatre?), beautifully performed, provocatively staged and imaginatively produced.

Harrison Birtwistle’s Down by the Greenwood Side is a wonderful period piece of 1960s expressionist music theatre. This ‘dramatic pastoral’ for soprano, four spoken parts and chamber ensemble weaves together the traditional ballad of ‘The Cruel Mother’ (in three different versions) with the traditional Mummers’ play featuring its rag-tag bunch of folk heroes such as Father Christmas, Bold Slasher and Saint George. To a libretto by Michael Nyman (yes, that Michael Nyman – a much better librettist than opera composer!) the work has all the hallmarks of mature Birtwistle: angular vocal lines, brutal, percussive instrumental writing and an overriding fascination with ritual. The piece has been somewhat overshadowed by both the composer’s larger operatic works (such as last year’s The Minator at Covent Garden) and the more infamous Punch and Judy, which when performed at ENO last year had the warning “not suitable for children”. It also plays second fiddle to the works of that other great English composer of the same vintage, Peter Maxwell Davies who’s Eight Songs for a Mad King and Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot are often held up as the best examples of quasi-operatic works from this era. However, none of these things should detract from an excellent production of this fascinating piece.

This production by The Opera Group definitely set out to stress the pantomime and ‘festive’ qualities of Down by the Greenwood Side; following the stark, sinister introduction and female soliloquy, the introduction of the boisterous Father Christmas (part jolly Saint Nick, part sleazy hobo) had all the qualities of a pantomime dame or court jester. His amusing interactions with the ensemble and conductor (a suitably game George Benjamin) set the tone, and one couldn’t help to notice a comedic undertone that went throughout the production. This wasn’t helped by the striking similarity between Father Christmas (played by the excellent Pip Donaghy) and Birtwistle: his portly features, unkempt beard and broad northern accent constantly bringing Accrington’s finest to mind. In fact there was also a strong North of England feel to both the piece and the production: Birtwistle’s ensemble with its inclusion of Euphonium and Cornet seemed to nod towards Lancashire brass band music and the reference to “hot pie words” and “syllabub curds” had me recalling a recent trip to Wigan. The comedic was enhanced by the temple blocks in the percussion that accompanied the horseback fighting sequence between Bold Slasher and Saint George – surely this was a knowing wink towards Monty Python and the Holy Grail, never has a temple block sounded more like two coconut shells?

However, whether or not the comedy elements were suitable for the work is somewhat irrelevant when confronted by such a wonderful production and performance. Claire Booth was excellent in the role of Mrs Green (Myra Hindley meets bag lady) coping with the composer’s angular melodies and irregular rhythms. The four spoken parts were well delivered and George Benjamin conducted the riotous proceedings with cool aplomb. Special praise must be given to Tim Lines, the clarinettist of the London Sinfonietta (the crack team of contemporary specialists chosen for this production) who’s seductive playing captivated me throughout Down by the Greenwood Side, especially in the final repeated figure that finishes the work, his diminuendo al niente had to be heard to be believed.

After a slow forty minute descent into 1960s paranoia and madness (why were these expressionists so preoccupied with madness?) with fortissimo brass still ringing in my ears, it took me a while to attune to the sensual, shimmering, feline sound-world of George Benjamin and Into the Little Hill. Benjamin’s first foray into the operatic world to a libretto by Martin Crimp was widely anticipated: his small but beautifully crafted corpus of works has often suggested a move into opera, none more so then the early Wallace Stevens setting A Mind of Winter for soprano and orchestra. Into the Little Hill is perhaps a ‘taster’ for Benjamin the opera composer, a ‘try-before-you-buy’ if you like – what the composer refers to as a ‘lyric tale’ for soprano, alto and large ensemble – though no doubt the first of many works in this genre.

The libretto is a bold and rather sinister retelling of the famous medieval tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, updated to a not-so-distant future where an unscrupulous minister is vying for re-election. He strikes a bargain with a pied piper figure who claims he can rid the town of a plague of rats; when this deal is reneged the piper lures all the town’s children “into the little hill.” Crimp’s libretto is fine (not the worst contemporary libretto by a long way) and gives Benjamin much to work with throughout the opera. However for a playwright of such renown I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed by the libretto, the well worn quasi-political intrigue and the clumsy analogy regarding the rats (“don’t the rats have feeling?” – make your own mind up where he was going with this) seemed a little tired and clichéd. I felt Benjamin’s music needed something more ethereal and distant to match his music, something that Benjamin’s teacher Olivier Messiaen knew full well in his only opera Saint François d'Assise (though I don’t claim that it is Messiaen’s best work by a long shot...).

Benjamin’s music is indeed sensual and irrevocably beguiling, constantly undulating and unravelling with the composer’s incredible ear for sonority and texture often coming to the fore. The addition of the contemporary composer’s favourite, the cimbalom to his ensemble gave Benjamin another otherworldly sonority to add to the mandolin and banjo that the unlucky second violin and viola player had to master. The music is constantly beautiful and rich, exotic at times, but after twenty minutes I was perhaps longing for a rasping euphonium or something suitably Birtwistlian. This arrived in the first scene of Part Two, ‘Inside the Minister’s Head’ where Benjamin’s music finally awoke with the high strings and muted brass suggesting the false and brash mind of the Minister. It continued into the next scene, ‘The Minister and the Stranger’ where jaunty string rhythms, burbling woodwind and the aforementioned cimbalom all heightened the tension of this pivotal moment.

Although Benjamin’s music was the star of the show, it was run a close second by the performance of the two female soloists Claire Booth and Susan Bickley. Both were at their mesmerising best in this production, Booth perhaps just surpassing Bickley with her powerful performance and stunning upper range. The staging was good (though the superimposing of certain sections of the libretto on to a large screen grated after a while), the playing excellent and the combination of these two works both fascinating and infuriating – what more could you ask for in an evening of contemporary opera?


Duncan Ferguson