Opera review:  Double Bill opens 63rd Aldeburgh Festival

Berio: Recital I; Benjamin: Into the Little Hill

24 June 2010 3.5 stars

Harrison BirtwistleFor his second season as Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival, Pierre-Laurent Aimard has stuck to his modernist guns and has programmed an adventurous collation of old and – mostly – new music. Getting us off with a bang was a double bill of one act operas – Recital 1 by Luciano Berio (written in 1972, so already nearly 40 years old) and the 2006 hit Into the Little Hill, George Benjamin's imaginative reworking of the Pied Piper of Hamelin story. There are links of sorts between the two pieces, especially as directed (by John Fulljames) on the Snape Maltings main stage: the protagonists in both pieces are playing roles within roles, the instrumentalists (members of the London Sinfonietta in spiky form) form part of the action and in both narratives we are concerned with theatricality. There is also a fundamental distinction between both works: in Recital 1 the soloist sings and emotes her own deepest, innermost thoughts as she passes through a state of psychological breakdown towards some hoped-for redemption (Libera nos are her repeated final words) whereas in the Benjamin piece, both the characters narrate the events that unfold on stage, rather than enacting them in conventional operatic mode. But links and differences apart, the only important question is this: what is the quality of the work we see onstage? On that count, with a few reservations here and there, the double bill passes muster.

Recital 1 has a dramatic setting: a grand piano centre stage, in front of a red curtain, with two enormous vases of flowers downstage left and right. Enter the soloist to give her recital, holding sheet music and singing to herself – the instantly mesmerising Susan Bickley, dressed in the grand manner (a kimono-like outfit that could be taking us towards Madama Butterfly) but with hair under a skull cap and pale makeup. Moment of drama – the accompanist is nowhere to be seen. From that moment, to the strains of the London Sinfonietta dimly discernible behind the red curtain, Bickley takes us on a journey through opera history, mingling snatches of the well-known (a Song of the Auvergne makes a brief appearance, as does a passage from Rosenkavalier) with linking passages of arioso and speech. Belatedly the accompanist arrives: at the piano he gives discreet prompts – sometimes Bickley sings with him, sometimes with orchestra only, sometimes with both. She gives a tour de force performance, moving effortlessly from Monteverdi to Reynaldo Hahn (always through Berio and back again) and the sheer vocal quality of her performance, in the resonant Snape Maltings acoustic, is fabulous.   Berio wrote the piece for his wife, the mezzo soprano Cathy Berberian, but soloists are allowed to make their own selection of the pieces they will intersperse – so Bickley included some Purcell, some Wagner, some Mahler and some Janacek – and in the course of her personal operatic survey there were some ravishing, beautiful moments. But nothing lasts of course: members of the Sinfonietta join her in front of the curtain, play a little test piece, swap instruments, begin to sound worse and worse – the agony of not being able to perform is what the work is supposed to illustrate. By the end Bickley is in full costume, wearing an extravagant hat lowered in place by a girl on a stepladder, but reduced to pleading for salvation. Bickley, deservedly, won a huge ovation.

The work is overlong and sometimes too clever and self-referential for its own good, but its core is a gripping piece of music theatre. Behind the curtain and following rather than leading his soloist was conductor Franck Ollu, who kept the momentum going whenever he could. The monologue sometimes sagged and all tension dissipated whenever Bickley left the stage: it was a mistake not to have her in full view throughout. But as the first performance of the 2010 Festival, this was quite something.

Against that, the shorter Into the Little Hill, highly praised whenever it has appeared since its 2006 premiere, seemed almost conventional. Fulljames gave it a straightforwardly Brechtian production: scenes are announced, the audience is distanced from emotional involvement with the players, they sing their lines and then drop to a monotone to add 'said the Minister' or 'said the Child'. Two circles dominate the stage, the orchestra arranged behind them. Into each circle, separately or occasionally together, come the two protagonists, sung (as previously) by the highly accomplished Bickley and by soprano Claire Booth. Both of them probably know the work backwards by now, and it shows: they convey every nuance of the musical and dramatic narrative that unfolds over Benjamin's vivid and colourful orchestration.

For this work, Franck Ollu was able to lead from the front and his players clearly relished the piece. Benjamin succeeds in almost layering the score, dark and bubbling woodwind underneath, a sensuous string sound hovering above them. Booth's soprano was all childish sweetness at times, but she has a terrific silvery sound at the very top of the voice (a few passages remind me of the writing for Ariel in the Thomas Ades Tempest) and her final incantation from the third circle that appears at the back of the stage, inside the hill itself, was wonderfully effective. 'Can't you see?' she sings repeatedly, as the Minister finally realises what the outcome of broken promises must mean.

Into the Little Hill is a very effective piece of music theatre which will bear repeated viewings: it has just that economy of means that the Berio lacks. Put together as a double bill, the evening worked well.

By Mike Reynolds

Photo: Alastair Muir

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