Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Hills Have Eyes

June 13, 2010

George Benjamin hugs Anu Komsi while Hilary Summers looks on with the Ensemble Moderne
Photo: mine 2010

The other program I was able to catch at this weekend’s Ojai Music Festival featured the West Coast Premiere of George Benjamin’s chamber opera Into the Little Hill. Benjamin, who served as the music director of this year’s festival, wisely made his first attempt at music theater the centerpiece of Saturday night if not the whole festival underscoring his ability to pack an awful lot of very good music into small and concise packages. Following its premiere in Paris in 2006, the work has been seen in London, New York and several other cities, often under the composer’s own baton. He conducted the work himself at Ojai using the forces he had employed at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2007 including members of the Ensemble Moderne and two soloists, soprano Anu Komsi and contralto Hilary Summers. (These are also the same performers who appear on the excellent 2008 recording of the work available from Nimbus Records.)

Into the Little Hill is based on the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin and features a rather dark modern-day libretto by Martin Crimp. In his pre-performance talk, Benjamin noted it took him a long time to find someone he wanted to work with and a topic he felt appropriate for an opera project. He noted that above all he wanted to produce something atypical of most contemporary opera, which, he argued, often avoids distinct narratives in favor of either abstractions or more ceremonial pageantry for its structure. Benjamin noted he has always liked telling stories and wanted this work to have a concise and clear narrative structure. So the story of a stranger who rids a small town of its rat infestation only to also rid it of its children when he is refused payment would seem a natural. However, I’m not sure how unique Into the Little Hill is, even in a contemporary context. The other recent opera it brought immediately to my mind in terms of structure if not musical language is John Adams’ A Flowering Tree. Although the latter is scored for a much bigger ensemble and chorus, both works use a fable as their starting point and focus on scenes with only two characters at a time. Adams fills out the plot by including a narrator in the mix as well. Benjamin, on the other hand, concentrates his piece, focusing on a much smaller orchestra and assigning all the narration to his two soloists as well as the six brief but separate roles in the work. The effect of having narration presented often in the same breath as character dialog creates a dissociative and creepy feeling in this rather gruesome and horrific tale.

Benjamin’s music couldn’t be more different from Adams’ either. Into the Little Hill is marked with a much more claustrophobic and direct feeling and I was most taken with how much sound the smallish chamber ensemble was able to produce. To drive this point home, Benjamin had paired the opera in the evening’s program with Stravinsky’s complementary Histoire du Soldat Suite. Also based on a fable, Stravinsky’s work uses only six instrumentalists maximizing each one’s efficacy and role in laying out the drama of his story. Benjamin may use more than twice the players, but the musical tactic is similar. (His scoring includes some unusual elements as well, such as a banjo.) Benjamin’s vocal writing is particularly good, and Komsi and Summers both provided expressive and chilling turns. When Komsi takes the role of the voices of the lost children digging below the surface of the earth in opposition to Summers' lines from the townspeople, it’s very affecting. Best of all Into the Little Hill is also about the power of music in a way we don’t often think about. The crime of the residents of this version of Hamelin is in failing to take music seriously. It would be equally unforgivable not to take Benjamin’s work seriously, given the intensity of this concert performance.



Small world.

I posted a comment on the LA Times music blog complaining about the delays in the Times's coverage of Ojai, followed the links in your follow-up, and realized from your photos that you were sitting next to my wife and me on Saturday.

Thanks for doing this and good luck.
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