In February and March 2009, The Opera Group toured with George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill and Harrison Birtwistle's Down by the Greenwood Side.
'Heroically playing all the parts in this pullulating scenario, soprano Claire Booth and mezzo Susan Bickley make a fine vocal match, greatly helped by the fact that Benjamin's word-setting is as expressive as Debussy's in 'Pelleas et Melisande'. The orchestral writing, meanwhile, responds with delicate precision to Crimp's terse and vivid poetry. Read cold, the libretto raises 'issues' – child-abduction, the politics of immigration – but in performance these are so muted as to be barely perceptible. Every piece of music leaves its own particular silence in its wake: the silence left after this work's last notes sounded was exquisite.
But this was only half of a brilliant double-bill which Opera Group is now taking on national tour: the other part is a revival of Harrison Birtwistle's rumbustious pastorale 'Down by the Greenwood Side', with Claire Booth playing the central character as a bag-lady. If John Fulljames's direction of the Benjamin – abetted by Soutra Gilmour's designs - is a model of refined restraint, his treatment of this semi-spoken parable of murder and miraculous rebirth (to Michael Nyman's libretto) is spirited and wonderfully coarse-grained – which can also be said of the orchestra and actors. Pip Donaghy makes the sleaziest Father Christmas I've ever seen.'
The Daily Telegraph
'Benjamin's score inhabits the text with absolute assurance: not a note is wasted, the dramatic pacing is impeccably controlled. The word-setting is always pellucid and sometimes lyrical, the orchestration (an ensemble of 15 includes bass flute, basset horns, contrabass clarinet, cornets and cimbalom) luminous, subtle and delicate. Most strikingly imaginative of all, however, is the way that Benjamin creates a world of sound, quite unlike any other... it left me both stunned and elated. A masterpiece, no question.
Into the Little Hill was preceded by Harrison Birtwistle's 1969 forceful and arresting one-acter Down by the Greenwood Side, based on Mummers' plays and folk rituals.Singing, acting and staging were excellent.'
Into the Little Hill *****
Down by the Greenwood Side ****