Monday, July 30, 2007

George Benjamin: Into the Little Hill

Last week I was perfectly reconciled to my role as bathgiver & putter-of-children-to-bed while J. worked her way thru a formidable program of theater & performance in Manhattan (after all, it’s her business to keep up with this stuff). But a happy in-lawal intervention made it possible for both of us to take in a Lincoln Center Festival performance of a new “opera,” Into the Little Hill, with music by British composer George Benjamin and libretto by British playwright Martin Crimp.

[First, unfortunately, we had opted to take the girls to one of those al fresco Shakespeare productions that spring up all around New York in the summer months, this one a Romeo & Juliet put on by a group of local amateurs – god bless ‘em – in a neighborhood park. It was a good thing it was an abbreviated production, only an hour, for if it had run the full 3 they might have found my cold and self-dispatched body right there beside those of the rather histrionic Juliet and the admittedly quite dishy Romeo. Thank god for amateur theater – and thank god for fine little Afghan restaurants & Dutch beers (yes, Heineken – shut up, Brian) to ease the aftershock.]

Into the Little Hill is an adaptation of the Pied Piper of Hamelin story, sung by a soprano (the very short Finn Anu Komsi) & a contralto (the very tall Hilary Summers, whose voice seemed oddly familiar; only later did I realize that I knew her from a half-dozen Michael Nyman recordings). The set was rigidly abstract, & the small orchestra – the excellent Ensemble Modern, under the baton-free direction of Franck Ollu – was disposed about the stage itself, so that the 2 singers came forward on brilliantly lighted catwalks between the strings, brass, & woodwinds.

Now, I’ll freely admit that I don’t know much about music – but I know what I like. I’ve probably seen a dozen operas in performance, & I know that I don’t care much for 19th century lyric opera. Alas, I found Tosca and La Boheme unutterably silly. The Magic Flute (with Maurice Sendak sets & costumes) was grand, but The Barber of Seville did nothing for me. My benchmark for opera experience still remains the production of Wozzeck J. & I saw in Florence (dir. Zubin Mehta), which seems a lifetime ago.

So I’m not the ideal opera-goer: but I was absolutely rivetted by Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill. The music bears traces of minimalism (more the British Bryars/Nyman variety than the American Adams/Glass Reich), but is far more jagged & expressionistic. In his own revolt against what he calls the “gray” tonalities of serialism, Benjamin has fastened on the unworldly harmonies of his teacher the French composer Olivier Messiaen – evident as much in Komsi’s singing, which often often approached the condition of birdsong or rat-squeak, as in the rich use of harmonies in the strings.

The timbres of the music, as much as the harmonies, were striking. In some of the louder passages, the blatting brass was joined by banjo, mandolin, and clacked sticks; for 2 very memorable stretches, pizzicatto strings accompanied a mesmerizing bass flute – an instrument I had never (knowingly) heard before, but which I’m now a big fan of.

Perhaps best of all was being in an auditorium with a mixed bag of people – college students, seniors, lots of artsy types in the inevitable black artsy-type uniform (yes, I wear it too) – who were there to hear the music, rather than to get the best deal off of their season tickets to some South Florida version of “high culture.” Imagine that! – a full hour of rather challenging, sometimes quite abrasive music, unrelieved by histrionic arias or breathtaking scenery, nobody shifting uneasily in their seats, nobody grunting with boredom of dissatisfaction, nobody loudly whispering “wake up, Harold!” (In South Florida, it’s difficult at the end of a performance to distinguish between a “standing ovation” & a “leaving ovation” – the latter being when the audience rises to clap so they can get out to their cars in the parking garage more quickly.)

So that’s the music tip for the day: Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill. I think it’s fab, & you ought to go see it – that is, if you live in a major metropolitan area. Me, I’m back in Palm Beach County for the foreseeable future.

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