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BENJAMIN: Into the Little Hill/Dream of the Song 

CD Button Plitmann, Bickley; Mehta, Cox; London Sinfonietta, Benjamin; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Nederlands Kamerkoor, Benjamin. Text and translations. Nimbus NI5964

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Critics Choice Button 1015 

GEORGE BENJAMIN'S Written on Skin became a contemporary classic following its 2012 premiere at Aix-en-Provence; less attention has been paid to the British composer’s 2006 chamber opera, Into the Little Hill. Librettist Martin Crimp, who also wrote the text for Written on Skin, retells the Pied Piper story as a creepy David Lynchian thriller: the Minister of an unnamed city in the “shadow of the Little Hill” seeks reelection by ridding the town of its rat infestation. A faceless, eyeless and noseless Stranger—stepping out from the imagination of Guillermo del Toro—promises to eradicate the rodents through the power of music. When the Minister reneges on payment, the Stranger leads the town’s children deep into the Earth’s molten core.

There’s an extreme economy of means in this thirty-five-minute work, which is not so much an opera as a musical fable or parable: soprano Hila Plitmann and contralto Susan Bickley portray all the characters, tacking on phrases such as “says the Minister’s Wife” to identify their role at a given moment. This creates critical distance and ambiguity, allowing myriad interpretations of the cryptic text. It’s never quite clear, for instance, whether the “rats” are literal vermin or a metaphor for the targets of politically motivated genocide; in one chilling scene, the Minister’s Child claims she sees them wearing clothes and holding babies. 

Benjamin transforms the subtleties of Crimp’s libretto into dark, slinking woodwind melodies that recall the opening bassoon line from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Standing in for the Stranger’s Pied Piper tune is a folk-tinged theme for bass flute, performed with husky sensuality by Michael Cox (who also plays Benjamin’s early, solo-flute work “Flight” on this disc). Accompanying it, we hear the scurrying of little rats’ feet in the form of pizzicato strings. There always seems to be something ominous lurking just beneath the shadowy surface of Benjamin’s music, lending the score an uncanny quality. Especially eerie is his use of cimbalom, a Hungarian hammered dulcimer, to represent the Stranger’s request for money; it produces a bizarre, trance-inducing timbre that is at once exotic and sinister.

As the Stranger, Plitmann is soft and seductive as she tells of music’s power to “unravel the clouds”; moments later, she snaps into a maniacal presence, leaping up to a high B on her demand that the Minister swear by his sleeping child. The soprano relishes Benjamin’s colorful word-painting—she breaks “rats” into two syllables, with a long pause before the final “-ts” so that it resembles the hiss of an extinguished flame. Bickley, in the contralto roles, doesn’t make as strong an impression as her colleague; Hilary Summers’s performance of this part on the 2008 recording of Into the Little Hill, also on Nimbus Records, is grittier and more theatrical. (It’s odd that Nimbus felt the need to rerecord the opera when the initial release, with Franck Ollu conducting Ensemble Modern, was superb. It seems Benjamin wanted a cleaner studio recording under his own direction; the London Sinfonietta offers a more precise and detail-oriented execution of the score.)

Also included on the disc is Benjamin’s 2014–15 Dream of the Song for countertenor, female chorus and orchestra. Nocturnal texts by Federico García Lorca (in the original Spanish) and eleventh-century Jewish–Andalusian poets (in English translation) conjure lonely, windswept nightscapes. In the cycle’s opening number, “The Pen,” soloist Bejun Mehta (who originated the role of the Boy in Written on Skin) flexibly maneuvers complex Middle Eastern-inspired melismas that also serve as musical images of handwriting. For the surrealistic movement “The Gazelle,” the countertenor’s tones slide upward, moan-like, imbuing the line “I’d give everything I own for that gazelle” with a disturbing, bestial eroticism. —Joe Cadagin 

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