The Master of the King’s Musick rose from her seat in the middle of Snape Maltings auditorium and acknowledged warm applause. English Touring Opera had opened the 75th Aldeburgh Festival with Blond Eckbert, Judith Weir’s mysterious tale based on a 1797 cryptic fairy tale – Kunstmärchen – by Ludwig Tieck. 

Dame Judith Weir said she would write the libretto herself. Her commitment to the story of the loner, Eckbert, whose life is destroyed when he and his wife Berthe let the light of outsiders’ shine into the isolated home they have carved out for themselves in the forest, seems absolute. 

Effort required. The audience needs to follow the composer down Eckbert’s psychological rabbit hole. Otherwise, Blond Eckbert – even in this shortened 70 minutes abbreviated two-act version – will be a good evening wasted.  

This is Weir’s third opera. In the foretalk, it became apparent how the Scottish composer’s imagination had been gripped by this story, forged at the beginning of Romanticism, entwining the conflicting demands of the supernatural, simple fate, ritual, folkloric tales, and community. Tieck had stumbled upon psychology before the discipline was invented. 

Eckbert and his wife, Berthe, live in isolation in the Harz mountains. There is something Hitchcockily weird in the setup. Think Psycho and a menacing house on a hill. During a “Flying Prelude”, Weir’s stage directions on the score tell us, “A bird flies across the stage, pursued by a dog”. The antithesis of Shakespeare’s “exit, pursued by a bear”. Here be humour amidst a tale of impending hubris. 

The bird is the narrator, setting the scene in the “long, long ago”. From the outset the audience is unsettled. We are told Eckbert and Berthe “appeared to love each other deeply”. Uh, oh, “appeared”. We are on a warning. Nothing will be as it seems. Despite the scene of apparent domestic tranquillity, “On his (Eckbert) own, a certain reserve stole over him, a still, retiring melancholy”. The annoyingly perceptive bird is flagging up Eckbert as damaged goods. 

One stormy night Eckbert’s friend, Walther, comes to visit and, in the absence of Netflix, to while away the time Berthe – Berthe’s Ballad – tells the story of her early life, running away from an intolerable home, ending up in the woods with an old woman, a dog and a bird that lays precious jewels, as mysterious birds in romantic German forests tend to do. 

Berthe, curious about the outside world runs away again, stealing the bird and its jewels. It’s a Berthe heist! Weir elevates the bird to narrator. Prophetic talking birds are terrific operatic devices. Rimsky Korsakov based a whole opera – The Golden Cockerel – on a prescient dicky bird that could forewarn a worried king of impending invasion. 

While telling her tale, Berthe recollects the bird and “that little dog”. Here, Weir highlights page 123 of the score with black quotation marks and the stage instruction, “Spoken: ‘Now, what was his name? I can never remember'”. Later when thanking Berthe for her story, Walther sings, “I can really imagine the bird, and that friendly little dog, Strohmian.”

It is a fabulous, dramatic moment. How the hell does Walther know the name of the dog? Weir sets up the reveal with a long rest, before ‘Stroh-mi-an’ is sung by Walther in an ominous, descending three-note phrase, fading from “moderately loud” to “moderately soft”. That phrase is then taken up by the cellos and oboes “fortissimo”.

We have just been nailed by a perfectly crafted “Wendepunkt”, a turning point in a story, or opera. Weir carries it off with elegant sleight of pen. It proves to be a stick of dynamite tossed into Eckbert and Berthe’s quiet pool of life. From here on in dead ghosts from the past, suppressed doubts, and a central, horrific truth about their relationship surface around them like dead, unwelcome fish.

Eckbert and Berthe are half-brother and sister. Their marriage is incestuous. Walther, the outsider, knows and Eckbert murders him because he may tell the tale to someone else, disturbing Eckbert and Berthe’s private world. In this production, Walther is dispatched by the unlikely means of Eckbert clubbing him to death with what looked like a Maglite Mini Flashlight. 

Berthe dies and Eckbert revisits the fairytale world of her childhood, encountering someone called Hugo and the old woman. They all turn out to be Walther in different guises. This is the moment when the old woman also reveals of Berthe, “She was your sister”. Eckbert responds, “quietly and reflectively”, “Why have I always imagined this dreadful thing”. The three syllables of the last two words are sung in the same three-note descending phrase deployed in the Strohmian reveal. 

Two “Wendepunkts” in one opera! That’s why Weir is Master of the King’s Musick. From here it is all downhill for Eckbert. The intrusion of the reality of the outside world has destroyed him. He dies as the Bird narrates, “Numbed and bewildered, he heard the old woman speaking, the little dog barking ……. and the bird repeating her song”.

There is no redemption, no deus ex machina enabling Eckbert to escape his fate. Weir is telling a tale that is relentlessly tragic and cautionary. Truths cannot be successfully buried. They will get out. Even though we may not all have an annoying bird accompanying us through life to tell us so. We do, however, have a conscience.

And English Touring Opera (ETO) has an agenda. Agenda meets conscience. Having recently relocated to Sheffield at the “encouragement” of Arts Council England, Robin Norton-Hale, ETO’s general director, seems as determined as ever to maintain an innovative repertoire, while fulfilling a vital educational function. 

Last season featured Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims, Donizetti’s Lucretia Borgia and Handel’s Giulio Cesare. “Opera that moves” is the company’s strapline. Picking jewels from the repertoire that can be successfully mounted at small scale is a canny strategy and worked perfectly at Aldeburgh. 

Norton-Hale presented the audience with a “home in a box”, kitted out in modern IKEA style, its occupants under close observation as in an Edward Hopper painting. My only issue with the clinicality of the home was that it lessened the sense of mystery that pervades the piece. 

But the plus point was that it isolated Berthe and Eckbert from the world of the mountain and forest beyond. You pays your money and you takes your choice. 

Eleanor Bull, the designer gambled with an innovatively modern setting, and it paid off. Not least because the unfussy production should be sought after by smaller companies or non-main stage spaces like the Linbury at Royal Opera and Ballet in Covent Garden. 

Whatever, it was a tight space within which to deliver Weir’s fiercely concentrated score. The combined impact was huge. Baritone, Simon Wallfisch sang Eckbert and was a powerful presence, grasping the nuances of the libretto perfectly, as he transitioned from questioning happy man to conflicted victim. 

Flora McIntosh as Berthe brought a sense of distance to the role. You never quite knew where you were with Berthe. The mezzo-soprano captured the ambiguity well.

Aiofe Miskelly, Irish soprano, the bird, was a permanent presence onstage and brought immense character to the pivotal role. Weir’s score demanded much of her. 

I have a plea for ETO, in fact for all opera companies, but ETO in particular. Why not publish libretti in full in the accompanying programme? They do that at Paris’ Bastille. Seeking out the libretto for Blond Eckbertwas like hunting the Snark. 

Eventually, I found the original score on a specialist website WiseMusicClassical, but it would have made the experience at Snape far more meaningful if the words – almost each of which – because Weir writes very sparingly – brings a resonance of its own to the piece – could have been available beforehand. This is not opera-geek overkill. No-one would buy a book if the contents were kept secret! 

And the setting at Snape Maltings was magical. It was, shamefully, my first visit. The staff are mostly volunteers and cheery advocates for Benjamin Britten’s and Peter Pears’ masterpiece. The yellow-jacketed car park attendant was keen to point me to highlights. I met the Chief Financial Officer at a drinks reception, and she turned me upside down and emptied my trouser pockets. The buzz as the annual festival got underway was exciting, the audience clearly up for the two weeks of events and exhibitions that make Aldeburgh so special.

Regrettably, after Blond Eckbert I had to return to London. Even the occupants of the neighbouring jallopy in the car park were keen to converse. I explained that I had enjoyed the opera, but that perhaps not entirely “got it”. They revealed they had both been at music college with Judith Weir and were not surprised that neither had they. Even amongst her friends, she enjoys a reputation for intense obscurity. 

ETO deserves the highest praise for taking on this challenging work. I hope at some point the production will be filmed. The only other offering is English National Opera’s original 1994 production, which looks as though it was strung together in a 19thcentury magic lantern gothic horror show. 

As England’s travelling company embarks on another leg of a hazardous journey, Blond Eckbert should make them many admiring friends along the way. The Master of the King’s Musick may be nearing the end of her tenure. Thanks to ETO, Dame Judith Weir’s Blonde Eckbert is not.