British composer's 20-year opera quest ends with Paris premiere
By Angelique Chrisafis
From the Guardian, Saturday November 25, 2006
He has been dubbed a British Mozart, a child prodigy who began composing at the age of nine and at 20 became the youngest composer to have a work performed at the Proms.
But George Benjamin, one of Britain's most enigmatic and important contemporary composers, has sometimes been painstakingly slow with his eagerly awaited creations, often spending four years on one piano piece.
Now, after what he calls a "20-year quest" to compose for opera, Benjamin has broken into the genre, with a 35-minute operatic reworking of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, which had its world premiere in Paris this week.
Into the Little Hill, an opera for two singers and a small ensemble, opened at Paris's Opéra Bastille and will play for two more afternoons at Théâtre de Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines near Versailles. "Excellently performed, it is as demanding as it is dumbfounding," said Le Monde's music critic.
Benjamin, 46, is feted in France where, aged 14, he studied at the Paris Conservatoire under the composer Olivier Messiaen, who described him as his favourite pupil. "In some ways this feels like a homecoming," Benjamin told the Guardian between performances.
The story of a politician who makes a mysterious pact with a stranger, Into the Little Hill is a collaboration with the playwright Martin Crimp, whose libretto is largely made up of single syllable words. "I've been looking to do something theatrical for 20 years, but I never found a collaborator and a way to do it until now," Benjamin said, describing Crimp's text as "seething with emotion".
He wrote the opera in six months, which he described as "astonishing speed according to my usual habits".
"It's compact. It's not a full-scale symphonic opera. I didn't want that," he added.
"It's The Pied Piper of Hamelin updated in a very subtle way. It's not a light little children's story, it's a terrible story of betrayal and deception, of music and its power. This is very much a reflection on the nature of music and its purposes."
The piece, commissioned by Opéra France's Festival d'Automne, will have its first performance in Britain as part of Liverpool's European capital of culture programme in 2008.
By Andrew Clements
From the Guardian, Saturday November 25, 2006
For almost 20 years, George Benjamin has been thinking about composing an opera. In that time there have been plenty of rumours of him collaborating with leading playwrights, but it is only now that he has found the right person to work with: the British dramatist and translator Martin Crimp. What they have produced, the "lyric tale" Into the Little Hill, premiered under the banner of the Festival d'Automne in Paris, is as entrancingly beautiful as anything Benjamin has written.
It is a slender, deceptively simple piece, lasting only 40 minutes and scored for just soprano and contralto (Anu Komsi and Hilary Summers, both outstanding) with 15 instrumentalists from Ensemble Modern conducted by Franck Ollu. The piece has barely enough dramatic trappings to qualify even as music theatre and while it probably could be presented more lavishly than Daniel Jeanneteau's staging in the Opéra Bastille's amphitheatre, it is the very economy of means - the action is played out around the ensemble, with the two singers sharing the narration and playing all the roles with a minimum of props - that gives the work its elegance and poetic power.
Crimp's equally spare libretto retells the centuries-old story of the Pied Piper. A minister seeking re-election promises the people he will rid their country of its rats, even though he knows they do no harm. A stranger, who has no face, offers to lead the rats away in exchange for money. A bargain is struck and the rats disappear, but when the minister is re-elected he reneges on the deal, saying the money has been better spent on "barbed wire and education", and the stranger leads the children away to the light "inside the little hill".
If the political resonances are clear enough Crimp never labours them, while the deftness of Benjamin's vocal writing weaves it into a spell-binding piece of storytelling. Each role is effortlessly characterised: the minister's delivery clipped, matter-of-fact; the stranger's soprano lines spiralling ever higher. All are wrapped in the most luminous score, subtly coloured by basset horns, cornets and a cimbalom, and later by banjo and mandolin too, while the stranger's seductive music is given to a solo bass flute snaking through the textures.
If composing for the stage has opened up new areas of expression for Benjamin, the result is more ravishing than anyone could possibly have imagined.