The Opera Group, Linbury Studio, ROH, London
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, London

A night at the opera ... spent in a bar

If the lights had to go out during the first night of The Opera Group’s double-bill of Down by the Greenwood Side and Into the Little Hill, they went out in the right opera.

Where Harrison Birtwistle’s 1969 ballad of rural infanticide thrives on greasepaint and gore, physicality and exaggeration, all George Benjamin’s 2006 fable requires is attentive ears and a little patch of floor to sit on. Mica-sheer and magnesium-bright, silted with the dreams of sleeping children and narrated in reported speech by two female voices, Into the Little Hill is not the fairy story it pretends to be. Scored to allure and alarm in deep, shining pools of harmony from the cimbalom, glistening figures for cellos, lowing bass flute and the half-heard pitchless scratching of tiny claws, it takes the story of the noseless, earless, eyeless Ratcatcher of Hamelin and turns it into a polemic against political expediency and the dehumanising language of genocide.

Undeterred by the power cut, cast and orchestra decamped upstairs. It’s not every day you see an opera in a bar, where elements of John Fulljames’s aborted staging could still be felt in this impromptu, delayed performance. Taking the roles of the hate-fuelled crowd, compromised minister, child and ratcatcher, Susan Bickley and Claire Booth sang leaning against the Linbury Studio’s bar with the players of the London Sinfonietta seated beside them. After the knockabout ritual violence of Fulljames’s “Broken Britain” Birtwistle staging – dominated by Pip Donaghy’s terrifying Father Christmas – the subtleties of facial expression and eye contact registered powerfully. With designer Soutra Gilmour’s rusted circles of steel still visible on the foyer monitors, we could supply our own images to accompany Martin Crimp’s crisp libretto: the warmth of a little bed, a barbed wire fence, the feeble saplings of urban regeneration. Bravely and intensely sung and played under Benjamin, this was an unusual and exciting event and one that highlighted the contrasts and connections between both composers.

From a power-cut-proof chamber opera to the stylistic car-boot sale that is Vladimir Martynov’s Vita Nuova. A cult figure in Moscow, the Russian anti-composer (his words, not mine) was a near-unknown in London until Vladimir Jurowski blew the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s piggy-bank on the world premiere of a work that sounds like an MP3 player set to shuffle mode.

Guided by three Estuarine boy trebles and a puff of dry ice, Dante (Mark Padmore) documents a quarter-century of dumbstruck love for Beatrice (Tatiana Monogarova), accompanied by one, two and three mixed-voice choirs (Germany’s EuropaChorAkademie) and the “concealing lady” (Joan Rodgers) who acts as Beatrice’s beard. Twelve-tone rows collide with semi-skimmed Wagner, super-skinny Mahler and shreds of English Pastoral; quasi-liturgical unaccompanied chant blossoms into melismatic flourishes; choruses in the jolly 12/8 rhythms of opéra bouffe are harmonised in the style of Perotin; Venetian choirs of brass are answered by espaliered violin solos; a wooden block beats time as spoken verse is splintered into separate syllables; Tchaikovsky and Berlioz are plundered for their trademark instrumental doublings. And who knew that Stanford, Harris and Howells were so big in Russia?

In this Schnittke-esque bran tub of historical references, there are three constants: the clarity of Martynov’s English and Italian word-setting, his wariness of full-fat orchestration (whole sections are often idle, as though emphasising that the Mahlerian devices are paraphrases not quotations), and the static C major triad that is Vita Nuova’s touchstone. Scrupulously performed by all concerned, the premiere was baffling, bland, sometimes hilarious and, finally, quite troubling. For if Martynov’s thesis is that Western art music is dead, then surely this Frankensteinian attempt to create new life from the body parts of its various incarnations is an elaborate, expensive joke? Either way, should the LPO record the Requiem of Act III and offer it to Classic fm’s Smooth Classics playlist, they will easily recoup their money.

The Opera Group: Oxford Playhouse (01865 305305) today, then touring

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