George Benjamin long held the desire to write an opera but the right project never quite presented itself to him. Until the advent of Into the Little Hill, that is, which resulted from his meeting with playwright Martin Crimp.
Since its premiere, given by Anu Komsi, Hilary Summers, Ensemble Modern and Franck Ollu at the Festival d’Automne in Paris in November 2006, it has garnered acclaim from all quarters, both in France and at its Netherlands premiere at the Holland Festival in Amsterdam (16 and 17 June 2007):
‘In my critical career, I’ve witnessed the birth of several fine new operas – notably those by Adams, Adès and Turnage – that have jolted me out of my underlying pessimism about the genre’s long-term future. But in all that time I have never heard or seen anything so startlingly or brilliantly original as Into the Little Hill. “Masterpiece” is not a word to fling about, but I’m tempted.
Into the Little Hill specifies itself as “a lyrical tale”; “dramatic cantata” might also serve. Its duration is about 40 minutes. Conductor, instrumentalists and performers are integrated on stage, the singers being two uncostumed women who pace up and down sodium-lit catwalks as they narrate the story and enact it, playing several different characters and combining to embody the chorus…
George Benjamin’s score is a miracle. Fifteen players – here drawn from the Ensemble Modern – are used to create a hyper-intense sound world. Not a note is wasted or superfluous – Benjamin’s ear is unerringly precise, and the sonorities he conjures up by combining conventional instruments with basset-horn, flugelhorn and cimbalom are quite ravishing.
But this isn’t an orchestral showpiece. The vocal lines are the driving force, and although the writing is often angular and abrupt, it is also richly expressive and alluring… Britain will get to hear Into the Little Hill next year, when it forms part of the European Capital of Culture programme. You may not like it – the effect is more unsettling than charming – but if you have any serious interest in opera, you simply must hear it.’
Daily Telegraph (Rupert Christiansen), 18 June 2007
‘… if you have any serious interest in opera, you simply must hear it.’
‘Monteverdi pats on the shoulder, Gluck sends his compliments and even Wagner won’t be too Anglophobe to mumble ‘well done’. As opera innovators they know the pitfalls of music theatre. And they will recognise how the Brit George Benjamin goes back to basics in Into the Little Hill, this exquisite performance that the Holland Festival invited to Amsterdam…
With Into the Little Hill George Benjamin touches upon the century-old music theatre question of what leads: music or text? There are composers – see above – that (paradoxically) turn to the text. To then wrap it in music that strikes the target all the more efficiently…
The scenography is simple: two light boxes and Perspex catwalks over wood chips from the garden centre. The music sounds concentrated and gives plenty of space for alto Hilary Summers and soprano Anu Komsi, both great. Ensemble Modern and conductor Franck Ollu let the notes glow from within: one is seduced by the mysterious bass flute, two basset horns lure you over the cliffs. Holland Festival director Pierre Audi shows his fine nose with this project. Into the Little Hill goes on, from the Westergasfabriek to Frankfurt, New York and Australia. It would surprise us if this did not become a contemporary classic.’
Volkskrant (Guido van Oorschot), June 2007
‘Benjamin let himself get carried away by the sublime libretto by Martin Crimp, and composed unearthly beautiful and profound music. This piece is a marvel of economical theatricality, superiorly orchestrated for Ensemble Modern, who were at their best this Saturday under Frank Ollu. Only two singers enact the story in a Brecht-like manner. Contralto Hilary Summers and soprano Anu Komsi did this admirably. With ominous lighting, an orchestra pit full of wood shavings and two lit boards a sinister world is evoked. It’s over before you know it. A pity, but even one extra note would destroy this little masterpiece… Into the Little Hill is like a light little feather, whirling down, that hits the earth to leave a crater.’
Trouw (Peter van der Lint), 18 June 2007