Short but perfectly formed. George Benjamin’s first venture into quasi-operatic territory lasts a mere 35 minutes but is so tightly constructed that its content expands like a Tardis. Its French description of conte lyrique, or operatic tale, takes liberties with official nomenclature. Scored for a soprano and contralto, this is, rather, a cantata or a distant relative to Britten’s canticles, with a sparse mise en espace by Daniel Jeanneteau. But it’s none the worse for that.
Martin Crimp’s text is a variation on the Pied Piper of Hamelin, which, through feats of poetical economy, brings in the seductive role of music and the fickleness of political promises. There is even room for delicious dry humour as the Minister feigns not to understand why the Piper should be interested in money.
Benjamin’s music never lets the tension flag. The soloists drum out the crowd’s fear of the rats in marshalled rhythms. It could be Stravinsky, although Anu Komsi’s penetrating soprano gives it the raw, medieval quality of an Ockeghem introit. Benjamin’s reliance on form and structure recalls Hindemith and his taste for rhythmic vitality stems from his teacher Messiaen. With anybody else this might sound derivative; with Benjamin, each reference is subsumed into a seductive package that reshuffles winning formulas into new shapes. The vocal writing is flawless, high soprano acrobatics pitched contrapuntally against Hilary Summers’ contralto.
This is an exhilarating demonstration of team work, greeted with warmly enthusiastic applause, but Summers in particular shines, turning this little jewel of a score into the performance of a lifetime. She tells the story with the cool professionalism of an outstanding Evangelist in a Bach Passion and makes you wonder what magic Benjamin might work with a real opera.
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