Superb start to Aldeburgh Festival

Into the Little Hill, Aldeburgh Festival, Snape Maltings, June 11

The 2010 Aldeburgh Festival began splendidly with a double bill from John Fulljames Opera Group, each of which, in different ways, questions the definition of what is opera.

Luciano Berio’s Recital 1 charts the descent into madness of a soprano during a recital. A tragi - comedy, it begins with her walking on stage to find her accompanist missing. Furious, she conjures the sound of an orchestra in her head, which we hear, but do not see. When her accompanist finally arrives,we gradually realise, through her repertoire and her semi - coherent mumblings,that she is the victim of a failed relationship, who can only articulate her feelings through fragments of song.

If it has its longeurs, its still a compelling piece, and soprano Susan Bickley, in a role that demands fine acting as well as singing, plus a “repertoire” that calls for a prodigious memory, is superb.

If the Berio is something like a one act play set to music, George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill is closer to what we recognise as opera.A re - telling of the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Martin Crimp’s libretto gives the story a contemporary feel, revolving around a minister who reneges on his promise to reward a stranger for ridding the town of rats so that he can be re-elected.

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Its unconventional in having a cast of only two, sopranos Claire Booth and Susan Bickley, who act as narrators, so this becomes an act of musical storytelling, with the orchestra on stage throughout as if to emphasize the importance of the musical score to the drama. And what a wonderfully imaginative score it is ,with much that is pure magic; Claire Booth’s Stranger, at the top of her register as she sings “With music I can open a heart”was breathtaking,and the playing of the London Sinfonietta under Franck Ollu ,both in the Benjamin and the Berio , was superb.

Another performance on Friday 18th June: not to be missed.

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Frank Cliff

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