Harrison Birtwistle’s 1969 Down By the Greenwood Side is a ritualistic pageant, a playground history of heroes and villains, bravado and bashings. At just 45 minutes, it is strongly reminiscent of the earlier Punch and Judy, with a spiky, intoxicating score and darkly surrealistic text.
Director John Fulljames gives us a raggedy band of Broken Britain remnants four actors and one singer slugging it out for the good of one or all. The dismemberment of St George by the thuggish Bold Slasher, until there’s nothing left but a wriggling trunk, sans arms, sans legs, sans head, is grotesque and funny in its ingenuity. Then in good fairy-tale fashion, he’s put back together again to fight another day. Joyously daft and disturbingly apt.
For many attending, George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill was the big draw of the evening, due to its delayed London premiere (it was first seen in a French production in Liverpool two years ago). Less dramatically dynamic than the Birtwistle, it resembles a song-cycle more than anything. Two blonde women, one younger (Claire Booth), one older (Susan Bickley) strike attitudes through a series of episodes re-telling the Pied Piper story.
Not that you’d know that from Martin Crimp’s text, if you hadn’t been primed. There’s plenty of talk of rats and ministers and mothers and children but little or no narrative. Are the two women the same person? We’re not sure. The two accomplished singers spin out the often testing vocal lines with precision and a dash of earnestness.
Those who went on the first night, and were subjected to an impromptu concert performance in the Linbury bar because of a power cut, didn’t miss a great deal in the way of staging but what we were given was just right – spare and elegant like the piece itself.
George Benjamin led a commanding performance from the London Sinfonietta of his own pungent and eerily beguiling score. The Opera Group, under its inspirational director, have brought us some excellent contemporary and near-contemporary work in recent years. This double bill stood higher than most.