Never more relevant and thought provoking, Into the Little Hill excels in its minimalistic, metaphor-laden vignette of authority corrupted and revenge taken. Sir George Benjamin’s first opera offers a percipient comment on a society’s angst of uncertainty through the juxtaposed first and third person narration of the happenings in Hamelin.

<i>Into the Little Hill</i> © Guillermo Florente
Into the Little Hill
© Guillermo Florente

With a reduced orchestra and two singers creating an intimate, involving spectacle, which embraces all moods from detatched observation to impassioned supplication, Benjamin’s work demands virtuoso vocal performance from both soprano and mezzo, here Jenny Daviet and Camille Merckx respectively. The dramatic arrangement requires not only technical expertise, with the long phrasing and precise articulation needed for Martin Crimp’s pared back lyrics, but also the convincing portrayal of six characters. Apart from Benjamin’s towering musical oeuvre, the evening had two other protagonists, staging and dance by La Veronal dance company.

Daviet was a Stranger who excelled with her superb vocal range and timbre. The role demands a coloratura soprano and in particular sections her highest notes were tested. She sang these effortlessly, adding to the eerie, ethereal quality of the protagonist, with Scene 4's “With music I can make death stop or rats stream and drop from the rim of the world” executed in an extraordinary cascade of bright notes. Again in the same scene, “Swear to me by your sleeping child” revealed her precise vocal attack, clear articulation and solid prolongation, complimenting Crimp’s economic syntax.

Lyric mezzo Merckx sang with dark resonance, comfortably switching between the firm voiced narrator, the bold minister and his wife. The work requires dexterity in the voices, and while not having the more spectacular role, she was eloquent and smooth in transition points and with the necessary vocal weight for each character. As the minister’s wife, her accusatory and then desperate demand in Scene 8, “Where is my child?”, was perhaps the opera’s dramatic high point.

<i>Into the Little Hill</i> © Guillermo Florente
Into the Little Hill
© Guillermo Florente

A 15-piece ensemble from the Teatro Real, conducted by Tim Murray, provided the moody musical intimacy. The sparse lucidity of Benjamin’s composition was expressively executed by the murmuring, sinister woodwinds and brass leading the melodic lines throughout the narration. Details abounded; strings in scuttling rat-like arpeggio, the bass flute in Leitmotif to the rat-catcher flautist or the subtle synergy of woodwinds and strings. The use of two of the Three Miniatures for solo violin by the same composer as a prologue was an excellent idea, centring attention before the dramatic “Kill them, they bite” crowd scene of Act 1.

The four performances here will also be remembered for Marcos Morau’s choreography, reinterpreting the story as one of a helpless, manipulated society suffering under a totalitarian yoke. This idea was realised through the real-time set construction, ending up as a postmodern living room, complete with Eames lounge chairs and MiLa-style floor lamps. The essence of a family space was created, the singers interacting with the ever-present dancers, dressed as older children but contorting and squirming much like a group of agitated, inquisitive rats. The visual parallel was clear and the troupe performed magnificently.

Benjamin's take on the medieval legend of The Pied Pier of Hamelin not only describes the direction the children were lead, but is a euphemism for extermination, and portends industrial scale genocide committed under political despotism in the 20th century. Hopefully this version, with its intelligent staging and choreography, will be included in future seasons. An audience is assured; the four-night run here in Madrid was sold out.

*****