“All music – smiles the minister – is incidental.” So says one of the two singers in George Benjamin and Martin Crimp’s Into the Little Hill, performed to perfection in Wigmore Hall by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group this Saturday. Anyone familiar with the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin will not be surprised to learn that the mysterious stranger whom the minister is addressing begs to differ. So, I am sure, would anybody listening to this mesmerising chamber opera itself.

George Benjamin © Maurice Foxall
George Benjamin
© Maurice Foxall

The London classical crowd is perhaps still reeling slightly from Benjamin and Crimp’s subsequent collaboration, the full-length opera Written on Skin, whose immensely successful Royal Opera House run was only weeks ago. But while Into the Little Hill (a re-telling of the Pied Piper story) may be smaller in dimensions, it is no less masterful, likewise marrying astute and pointed text with delicious but also supremely intelligent music. There are more specific similarities between the two operas as well, from both scores’ prominent cimbalom parts to the characters’ habits of narrating their own actions (“says the man”; “smiles the minister”). Maybe most significantly, both operas share a fascination with the meeting of the past and the present – but while at times this can seem disjointed or difficult in Skin (see David’s argument for this here), the more ambiguous tone sustained throughout Hill arguably makes the fusion of distant eras more successful. It’s nominally set in the present, as the references to electricity and politicians kissing babies make clear, but something of the tale’s mediaeval origins lingers throughout in the mob mentality of the inward-looking, rat-infested little town.

Two singers share all the roles – sometimes contradictory ones, in fact. Contralto Hilary Summers was, among others, both the minister and the baying mob, and soprano Susanna Andersson was both the sinister magician and the innocent child who watches the rats’ hasty exit from town. This rather distanced approach to the drama meant that a concert performance worked very well. And both singers gave superb performances: Summers masterful, dramatically engrossing and possessed as ever of a marvellously direct, full low tone; Andersson enchanting in her coloratura passages and always singing with the clarity of a true new music specialist. BCMG sounded excellent under the direction of Benjamin himself.

There’s plenty more that might be said about the piece, but as with Written on Skin, hearing Into the Little Hill was an experience that primarily just made me want to get to know it better. It was provocative and clever like a poem or a play, a wonderful example of how opera can easily be just as potent a medium for new artwork as any other. In fact, this concert as a whole was one of those increasingly frequent occasions when everything about new music seemed to make total sense.

Smartly programmed, this evening’s concert presented two more contemporary works before Into the Little Hill: Francesco Antonioni’s Ballata (2008) and the world première of David Sawer’s Rumpelstiltskin Suite (2011). All the programme shared the general theme of folk music or tales, and the three composers’ styles were differing but complementary. Ballata, for an octet of strings, is based on both a 14th-century ballad and a south-Italian lullaby recorded by the American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in the 1950s. More than that, however, it’s a gorgeously realised abstract piece tracing moods from joy to grief. In its precision and delicateness it recalled Benjamin – once Antonioni’s teacher – but its rhythmic vitality, and much more besides, felt all the younger composer’s own.

The Rumpelstiltskin Suite was also a treat. It is based on Sawer’s ballet/theatre piece Rumpelstiltskin, written for BCMG and first performed in 2009, and like Into the Little Hill the suite is immediately engaging and entertaining throughout. It differs from the Benjamin in adopting what sounded like a slightly more primary-colours aesthetic, responding to his fairy-tale subject matter with bold, maybe even child-like washes of sound such as big brass chorales and some delicate harp writing to depict Rumpelstiltskin spinning the gold. The storytelling, in fact, was remarkably clear, despite the lack of visual or literary props, and it’s left me with the keen desire to see the full Rumpelstiltskin staged (a BCMG revival is slated for 2014/15).

The evening, though, was Benjamin’s – as was only appropriate on a day that Wigmore Hall had labelled “George Benjamin Day” – and though he conducted both Antonioni’s and Sawer’s works with great clarity it was his own which shone most brightly. Apparently, this was the first time Wigmore Hall had ever hosted a contemporary opera performance. This is a bizarre statistic – but, I hope, a sign of more to come.