I have fallen in love with Benjamin Britten’s ‘church parable’ Curlew River three times over the course of many years. First I heard the Britten recording, featuring Peter Pears as the Madwoman, and was instantly struck by its powerful drama and incredibly creative instrumental scoring. Then I bought the score and was swept away by its beauty on the page: the elegance of the presentation and the way it creates – and instantly solves – complex issues of co-ordinating players and singers in music which rarely has a single pulse.
Then, last night, I finally had the chance to discover the piece as a theatrical experience, and fell in love once again. The production, by the Britten Sinfonia at St Giles’ Church in the Barbican, was everything I hoped it would be, and made a wonderful case for the work as possibly Britten’s finest opera.
Not that is opera from the world of La Boheme or Cosi fan Tutte. Rather, Curlew River is an austere ritual, a monolith, in which a group of hooded monks emerge singing plainchant, and proceed to perform, at a deliberate pace, a peculiar Christianised parable. The staging was restrained but telling, from the carefully selected colour-palette of black, white and grey, to the carefully judged use of film projection, casting moving images of curlews and moving water. It was uncompromising, ascetic and utterly engrossing.
The music itself is a miracle. The opera takes its inspiration (and story) from Japanese Noh theatre, and in musical terms this translates into a small band of seven players, prominently featuring flute and drums, and the device of heterophony, where several versions of a melody are presented simultaneously. It is not found commonly in western music and its use here is one of Britten’s ideas of genius, blending it as he does with the more familiar melodic outlines of plainchant. The scoring is endlessly inventive, and there are marvellous moments for the sinister gong and redemptive small bells.
It is supposed to be performed without a conductor, singers taking their cues from the instrumentalists, but here it was led, for whatever reason, by the music director and chamber organist, William Lacey. Although he did a perfectly competent job, I would have loved to have seen it done as set out in the score.
The main character, the only one who is not part of the group of monks at the beginning, and dressed in distinctive all black, is the Madwoman, the mother of a stolen boy who, it emerges, has died. Ian Bostridge, allowing for the Brechtian distancing implicit in the score, gave a wonderfully acted performance, interpreting the woman’s madness to be unresolved grief. His singing was powerful when it needed to be, but always carefully control. The Ferryman, played by Mark Stone, was also difficult to criticise, especially telling in the moving section where he describes the Child’s death.
Curlew River, written in 1964, at the height of Britten’s perceived irrelevance among the avant-garde, is unconcerned with fashion and, as a result, a timeless classic. It combines disparate traditions in a way both personal to Britten and universal, and this production, directed and designed by Netia Jones, was an unmitigated triumph.
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