The week in classical: Picture a day like this; Peter Grimes; Carol Williams: Mad Rush – review

Not for the first time in an opera by George Benjamin, to a libretto by Martin Crimp, the subject appears specific: a dead child, a mother, the search for a way to bring her son back to life. The reality is more elusive. Their fourth collaboration, Picture a day like this, offers an inquiry into the human condition compressed into its 70-minute duration. Can anyone ever comprehend another’s grief? Is happiness a chimera? Does wealth, sex, artistic success bring joy? We know the answers, but the questions still have to be asked. A co-commission and co-production between seven European opera houses, Picture a day… was first seen at the Aix-en-Provence festival in July, where the composer was also the conductor.

For the UK premiere at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury theatre, Benjamin has passed his baton to Corinna Niemeyer (praised for her conducting of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia there last year). Two members of the five-strong vocal cast are new. In the pit, players from the orchestra of the Royal Opera House have added the work, with style and precision, to their repertoire (the Mahler Chamber Orchestra performed the premiere). Few operas are ushered into the world with such confidence, and the assurance of a fully fledged life ahead. Benjamin and Crimp have been fortunate: their most successful work, Written on Skin (also premiered at Aix, in 2012), has already had multiple international stagings, with more scheduled. Picture a day like this is a more intimate endeavour, closer to the fairytale world of their first work, Into the Little Hill (2006).

If the people of the Borough are weird and louche from the start, the force of their ugly mob response is neutered

Soaked in poetry and myth, this new chamber opera is sombre, and short on laughs (except one about polyamory; you had to be there). The quest, to make the impossible happen – find a happy person and take a button from their clothing – is one of the oldest forms of storytelling, from Orpheus to the holy grail to the Little Red Hen. When, in the penultimate scene, the protagonist/mother – called Woman (Ema Nikolovska) – confronts a closed door, we think of the horrors of Bluebeard’s Castle. From the obsessed lovers (Beate Mordal, Cameron Shahbazi) to the Artisan/Collector (John Brancy) and finally to the strange Zabelle (Jacquelyn Stucker), the self-contained cameos resonate beyond their telling. There is no drama. The characters are archetypes. This operatic fable may leave you heavy-hearted, its topography of sadness too vast to negotiate, but it is beautifully performed.

The chance to hear a new score by Benjamin, sparkling with invention and intricacy, offers redemption. Instruments are aligned with brilliant sonic novelty. Tubular bells, harp and celesta shimmer, offsetting the burble and growl of low woodwind, including bass flute, tenor and bass recorder, basset horn and contrabassoon. In bright contrast, volleys of brass, with piccolo trumpet and tenor trombone, are intense and nervy. Most of the singing is close to the pattern of normal speech, on occasion written without rhythmic instruction for the singer to interpret freely. The production, by Daniel Jeanneteau and Marie-Christine Soma, was shaped around panels of mirrors that shifted subtly but effectively through the seven scenes. At the end, via a video projection, a garden appears. Is it a place of fertility or decay? Mystery is central to the operatic lexicon of Benjamin and Crimp, the conclusion open-ended.

Anyone unfamiliar with Peter Grimes should hurry to the revival of David Alden’s 2009 production at English National Opera, last seen in 2014 and conducted now by Martyn Brabbins. This suggestion is prompted by a neighbour at the Coliseum, experiencing Benjamin Britten’s 1945 work for the first time and enthralled by it. The playing and singing of ENO’s chorus and orchestra alone would be worth the visit (there were empty seats at the second performance. Tickets for under-21s are free; otherwise, start at £10). Gwyn Hughes Jones, a powerful Tristan at Grange Park Opera this summer, sings Grimes with feeling, voice at times straining to express emotion: he is still exploring the shadows and nuances of this complex figure. The ensemble cast each pulled their weight, led by Elizabeth Llewellyn (Ellen), Simon Bailey (Balstrode), Christine Rice (Auntie) and Alex Otterburn (Ned Keene).

The people of the Borough (designs by Paul Steinberg, lighting by Adam Silverman) are monstrous from the start, kitted out like figures from an Otto Dix painting. This is one way of approaching Montagu Slater’s libretto and, at one remove, George Crabbe’s original poem, but it risks flattening the work’s humanity. For Crabbe, these are ordinary people, busybodies with normal proclivities and a narrow sense of moral rectitude. If, as here, they are downright weird and louche from the start, the force of their ugly mob response is neutered. This is the main reason for this strong performance being unmoving. Reservations aside, Britten’s masterpiece is greater than the sum of these parts. The chance to hear it is always worth taking.

Delectable pleasure came in Mad Rush, a show of effervescent bravura by Carol Williams on the Royal Festival Hall organ, part of the launch weekend of the Southbank Centre’s new season. Her mixed programme – which she introduced with crisp verbal asides and some Ripponesque legwork as she spun round to talk to us – covered the spectrum from the French organ school (Louis Vierne, Charles Tournemire) to Philip Glass and Lou Reed. Williams’s witty arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee had all the buzzing activity galumphing around in the bass. The fortissimo roar of the pipes (7,866 of them), illuminated in sumptuous disco colours, was thunderous and wild. Pure exhilaration.

Star ratings (out of five)
Picture a day like this
Peter Grimes
Carol Williams