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27.11.06

New Opera Notes: Into the Little Hill

George Benjamin, composer, b. 1960European houses continue to produce new operas (see my last New Opera Notes, on John Adams, A Flowering Tree), reminding me to keep working on my plans to relocate Ionarts Central to Paris. Jean-Louis Validire reported on George Benjamin's first opera Into the Little Hill, being premiered at the Festival d'Automne, in an article (Le premier opéra de George Benjamin à Bastille, November 21) for Le Figaro (my translation):

George Benjamin loves French music: Debussy, whose prophetic genius he emphasizes, and his teacher, Olivier Messiaen, to whom he is bound by the profound friendship, beyond respect, that he feels for the composer. Having entered the Conservatoire de Paris at the age of 16, he studied not only composition, but also piano with Yvonne Loriod. In return, France has not been indifferent to the prolix works of this 46-year-old English composer, since the Opéra de Paris, where his first opera will be premiered, had already given him carte blanche in 1992.

Into the Little Hill, based on a libretto by Martin Crimp, is based on the legend of the Pied Piper, turned into a fairy tale where a politician strikes a deal with an unknown stranger. This first incursion into opera does not follow anyone's rules. "I didn't know Martin Crimp two years ago. For 20 years people have been asking me to write a stage work, but I was not ready," Benjamin explains. The encounter with the writer was the key to it all. From their agreement, after many hours of discussion, this project was born. It was the "very strong, very simple text" that predated the musical composition of this work, the composer's longest. [...]

The opera uses two singers, a contralto and a soprano. "I have already written four or five pieces for voices. The challenge for this opera was to remain faithful to the text and put it to music in an authentic way." George Benjamin admits that he reflected a lot on the way to treat the voice. "I had the two singers come to my house, and I took copious notes on their voices in order to understand what instrument I was using, what register was the best."
Other Articles:

Andrew Clements, Into the Little Hill (The Guardian, November 25)
-- "If composing for the stage has opened up new areas of expression for Benjamin, the result is more ravishing than anyone could possibly have imagined."

Angelique Chrisafis, British composer's 20-year opera quest ends with Paris premiere (The Guardian, November 25)
-- "It's compact. It's not a full-scale symphonic opera. I didn't want that," he added. "It's The Pied Piper of Hamelin updated in a very subtle way. It's not a light little children's story, it's a terrible story of betrayal and deception, of music and its power. This is very much a reflection on the nature of music and its purposes."
The first review I have read was by Renaud Machart (La belle première de George Benjamin, November 24) for Le Monde (my translation):
In Hans le joueur de flûte (1906), by Louis Ganne (1862-1923), the predecessor of Into the Little Hill [...] we hear these ineffable words: "C'est la flûte, la flûte de Pan, Tu tu, Pan pan" (sic!). It was doubtful that an avant-garde author [Martin Crimp] was going to make a singularly different version of the Pied Piper legend. Without being Gertrude Stein, his text is shrunken, tight-lipped, bony, and very sonorous without making the music seem redundant. Crimp wrote an introduction that clarifies the nature of this work, entitled "Text for music": "When I was a child, I was fascinated by chemistry experiments. More than anything, I loved the magnesium ribbon. It was a gray, tin-like, and innocent metal that appears in the form of a striated serpent. But when you set it on fire, especially in an atmosphere of pure oxygen, it burns while releasing an intense white light. My work has been to fabricate that metal. The much more difficult work of the composer is to add the oxygen to set it alight."

The score (about 35 minutes) by George Benjamin, the most widely admired English composer of the still young generation (he was born in 1960), breathes magnificently in spite of an almost permanent sense of tension. The writing (for 15 instrumentalists) is clear, even if it favors low textures, whispered underground in a sonorous light, subtly under-saturated. If one had to name the source of which Into the Little Hill might be the echo, you would not think first of an opera, but rather the little-known and splendid Cantate (1951-52) by Igor Stravinsky, which also references and reinvents an antique-style form of ideal contrapuntal writing. The use of a cymbalum and bass clarinets (basset horns) also recalls the accompaniments of certain songs and youthful operas of the composer of Le Sacre du printemps. But Benjamin does not indulge in nostalgia and does not simplify his complex and intricate style in this case, as so many avant-garde composers do when confronting this genre of commonplaces and with a recalcitrant audience, that is, opera. Into the Little Hill, excellently performed, is as demanding as it is spell-binding (médusant).
The staging of this one-act opera was directed by Daniel Jeanneteau. The Ensemble Modern provided the instrumental part, conducted by Franck Ollu, with the two roles sung by soprano Anu Komsi and contralto Hilary Summers.

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