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

Arts and Entertainment

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Metallica are heading for the Main Stage at Reading and Leeds Festivals next summer

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain's daughter Frances Bean Cobain is making a new documentary about his life

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp

TV Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp

Arts and Entertainment
TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire