No one knows who put Bella in the wych elm, but Simon Holt has taken her out, put flesh on her bones and brought her to vivid life in his new music-theatre piece Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm? His libretto is fashioned from the facts - few and fragmented though they are - in an article in The Independent, in which Richard Askwith explored the Hagley Wood "tree-murder riddle" of 1941. But far from applying a conventional treatment, offering a straightforward setting of a grisly tale of female skeletal remains stuffed down a tree trunk, Holt has created a highly intriguing scenario and score.
Responding to requests for two separate pieces - a piano and violin piece, and something in the opera line - Holt took the risk of combining the two in one ambitious and unique hybrid. The result is no stitched-up job, straining at the seams. Instead, it's a surprisingly effective and dramatic blend of piano and violin duet, cantata, operatic scena and pared-down chamber work. It's cunningly framed by a device linking Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm? with the preceding work in the evening's triple bill, Per Norgard's piano solo Achilles and the Tortoise. It's hard to say who won this race, nimbly run by Rolf Hind, but the page-turner didn't seem quite up to speed. To say more would spoil the coup de théâtre of the evening but, as with so much of Cathie Boyd's direction, the production was imaginatively matched to Holt's subtle sense of drama.
Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm? doesn't so much grow organically as branch out in a wide range of directions, threaded through with Rolf Hind and David Alberman's brilliantly executed piano-and-violin duetting.
From their introduction, with a whispered pre-echo of a danse macabre, the Protagonist takes up the story. Andrew Slater gives an intimate portrayal of the mysterious onlooker, privy (perhaps) to the secret surrounding Bella's unsolved murder. Impressive in his use of the extended-voice technique Holt employs here, Slater makes a thoroughly believable protagonist, his reminiscences paced out by a slow-moving figure silhouetted at the back of the stage and only gradually emerging as Bella herself.
When she finally opens up, physically and vocally, Bella is defined, Daphne-like, as the wych elm itself. Swathed in verdant green and sprouting rustling, restless fingernail leaves, Rachel Nicholls launches into a passionate scena, a vibrant melodic outburst that is by turns angular, anguished and lyrical. Only at this point, about two-thirds through this 40-minute piece, do the reduced forces of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group stir into life, in another daring gesture on Holt's part.
Shapes, colours and textures marry musical and visual concept with video images tantalisingly suggesting the shadowy forces behind Bella's murder, while a sonic backdrop throws veiled hints and half-familiar snatches into this hazy memory of past horrors. Since Holt's intention was that the piece should be small enough to be performed in a space as compact and claustrophobic as the atmosphere that it generates, the production is necessarily slimmed-down. But Holt's music more than compensates, with its range of musical styles and theatrical inventiveness. If you miss it at the Almeida Theatre next month, an autumn tour is on the cards.
Following the Holt, the UK premiere of Salvatore Sciarrino's Infinito nero: estasi di un auto was an exercise in concentration - both for the audience, in tuning in to Sciarrino's minute instrumental gestures; and for the excellent BCMG musicians, weaving a magical spell around Maria Maddelena de Pazzi's mystical words. The second unfortunate woman of the evening, she was deemed mad, her visions agonisingly turbulent. Katalin Karolyi, integrated into the striking blood-red-and-black setting, gave a powerful and compelling reading of the disturbing text, writhing, wriggling and tearing open her soul as well as every vocal cavity known to woman. It was an extraordinary ending to an unforgettable evening.
'Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?' is at the Almeida, Theatre, London N1 (020-7359 4404) on 2,4 and 5 July