Into the Little Hill is a retelling of the 'Ratcatcher of Hamelin' myth, with a libretto by Martin Crimp. In the programme Benjamin says that
Martin and I wanted to tell our lyric tale in the most direct and authentic way possible - not an easy task in the age of television and cinema. Our solution, where the story-telling as well as the multiple roles are shared between just two singers, acknowledges at all times the artificial nature of sung drama, while still permitting dialogue and characterization. Occasionally, particularly in heated moments, it approaches the naturalistic.
Benjamin's phraseology here is a little problematic - "authentic" and "naturalistic" are particularly fraught. The idea that admitting that here are two singers on stage makes something more "authentic" than something which doesn't admit such a thing up front is frankly a little silly - because I should think that nobody ever sat in an audience at an opera and imagined that they were not watching two singers engaged in something entirely artificial (one of the most attractive things about opera is its blatant artifice). This slightly fuzzy thinking results in a Crimp libretto which involves two voices - a soprano and mezzo - who tell the story to the audience and enact some bits of it in dramatised scenes. I suppose Benjamin is using "naturalistic" to mean that, at some moments, the storytellers seem to "disappear" and we are left watching the characters in dramatic conflict.
John Fulljames' production takes Benjamin and Crimp at their words and presents us with an orchestra on stage, three rather abstract hoops of varying sizes and the two singer/performers - Claire Booth and Susan Bickley - in contemporary dress. They sing the narration out front to the audience and interact with each other in the scenes between the characters (they never interact with the orchestra, which is in itself a choice which leads to results). Because the contemporary dress used is exactly what one would expect conservatively stylish middle-class women of Booth and Bickley's status to wear, we are shown a traditional story told to us by two middle-class women. Now, these ARE these two middle-class women - but the mis-en-scene also encourages one to mull over the idea that two relatively well-heeled fictional British women are telling an audience - which may be us or may be some fictive but unspecified audience - the tale. They do so with great thought and concentration - and at times (especially during the later parts of the narration) they seem to be personally considering the events of the tale and disturbed by their considerations...
Crimp has, by a few subtle strokes, make the tale suggestive of not merely ridding a town of vermin as a literal event but also of more sinister and historically recent purges of undesirable elements. At one point, a child insists that the rats look like humans, in coats and with suitcases. Crimp's tale is set in a more modern environment than the medieval version we are traditionally used to. The Mayor is up for democratic election, the rats are accused of stealing not only bread and property but electricity. The Stranger - as the Piper is called in Crimp's version - becomes a sinister figure indeed. All the while in Fulljames' production, even though at times one is drawn into the events of the tale and the fates of its characters, one is conscious of these two middle-class women telling, feeling, considering, being made sad and thoughtful by it.
The piece need not be performed like this. More abstract or mythic consumes could be used; dumb shows could work with the storytelling to enact the events; the storytellers could be a lot more neutralised or removed from the performers. By making them very clearly two well-dressed, contemporary women, the production encouraged me to think about why two bourgeois women might want to tell and consider the Ratcatcher of Hamelin tale. That the women are of different ages - Booth is young enough to be Bickley's daughter - suggests a familiar relationship between the two; that Booth is also visibly pregnant suggests that they have occasion to think about a tale in which society plunges into mass murder and terrible consequences; it certainly makes the moment where Booth plays the child witnessing a rat drop its baby very poignant indeed. A whole imagined situation in which two seemingly comfortable women are nagged at and moved by a strange children's story opens up.
All the while during this, Benjamin's haunting, nagging, insinuating music accompanies the proceedings with its seductive but sinister sheen. That The Stranger uses music in his extermination of the rats makes the story eminently suitable for operatic treatment; that certain regimes have used music as part of their death culture should gives an opera-going audience as well as the makers of opera some pause for thought. Fulljames's production of Benjamin's short opera IS that pause.
'The Ratcatcher of Hamelin' is a discomforting tale. In the end, the town's children disappear because the politicians will not pay the Stranger. The children disappear into the little hill nearby and can be heard following the Stranger further and further down to something which, in Crimp's version, sounds very much like hell. Having gone down into the Linbury Studio and experienced the piece, having seen the two worried women telling and being disturbed by the tale, I came out disturbed by their disturbance, making this a very successful evening of art indeed.