I'm an enormous Benjamin Britten fan so I was ecstatic when I saw the White Light Festival Presented by Lincoln Center was producing Curlew River, one of Britten's lesser known and more "difficult" pieces, but nothing prepared me for the monumental, illuminating and thrilling production of Curlew River that opened last week.
Curlew River is officially called A Parable for Church Performance, and this production, brought over from London with its original cast and complete orchestra is, according to the on-line program, the U.S. World Premiere; I can't imagine a more perfect production.
Britten composed three Parables, all written to be performed at his church in Suffolk. The great strength of this production was that it was also performed in a church, Synod House, a little, intimate chapel, next to the gigantic St. John the Divine. The audience walked into a smoky, incense-laden space which looked rather like an Elizabethan Banquet Hall, the kind of space one would imagine where the original Twelfth Night was first performed. Seats moved to the sides, there was a low-lying, white platform running the length of the nave with a bed of river stones surrounding the playing area. The setting was so starkly beautiful and hauntingly lit, with a white sale mounted on a impressionist mast (symbolic cross at the top) stretched across the alter area, I knew I was in for something special.
In the dark we heard Monks chanting a cappella in Latin, and slowly a small band of shabbily clad, hooded acolytes processed down the river of pebbles. They were wearing what looked to be medieval robes but with some sort of anachronistic Japanese lettering on the sleeves. The lettering, barely visible through the folds of the robe, alerted the audience this performance was going to be some sort of amalgam of East and West.
Curlew River is based on the Japanese Noh play, Sumidagawa (Sumida River) which Britten saw on a visit to the far-east in 1956. Similar to Sondheim's Pacific Overtures, his score is a Western interpretation of Eastern music but unlike the Sondheim score (orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick) there are no Eastern instruments in Britten's orchestration, no shamisen, no shakuhaci; except for some bells, the score consists of a very small, if slightly unconventional, Western chamber ensemble: horn, harp, flute, double bass, percussion and organ. One of the glories of the score is how these instruments imitate traditional Eastern instruments, the flute harshly gliding up foreboding half-tones, the harp arpeggios conjuring the koto.
The plot is deliberately static: A Madwoman wants to cross the river via the Ferryman's boat. On the river, the Ferryman tells the tale of a young boy who was kidnapped from his home last year near the Black Mountains where the Madwoman lives. The boy fell ill, subsequently died and the people who live by the river believe the boy's grave is sacred. The Madwoman realizes that the boy was her lost child. She goes to his grave and as she is grieving, the boy's spirit appears and his mother is redeemed from her madness.
This is not a piece about plot. It's about grief and loss. It's about redemption, forgiveness and acceptance, all themes Britten returned to again and again throughout his career. It's about a river that most be crossed, about life to death, despair to hope, madness to sanity.
The story unfolds as the Abbot, the imposing Jeremy White, introduces us to the "mystery" that is to be presented.
The Ferryman introduces himself and the plot begins. Mark Stone, the English baritone, was magnificent. I have seen Stone perform many times in the UK, he's one of my favorite Don Giovanni's, but I've never heard him sound so powerful, so profound. Maybe it was the space, maybe it was a singer at the very height of his powers, doesn't matter; it was a joy to hear his deep warm baritone penetrate every wooden nook and cranny of the Church, the overtones reverberating through the rafters, his powerful presence commanding his ferryboat.
I lived in London for ten years and during that time I saw many Britten pieces and quite frankly, there's nothing akin to hearing Brits sing Britten. His music is buried deep within their collective consciousness, and even if a Brit doesn't know a note of Britten, chances are he or she grew up with the same musical ecclesiastic education that young Ben himself grew up with, so it's in their DNA. Seeing the English perform Britten is much like seeing a great English production of Shakespeare: they just know how to do it, just as the New York Philharmonic knows how to perform Gershwin, Copeland and Bernstein.
Next we were introduced to Neal Davies, the Traveller, who's big, booming, but sumptuous voice lay a bit higher than Stone's and the two of them melded together in beautiful (if Britten-like astringent) harmony. Again, the acoustics of Synod House let every subtle phrase Davies and Stone shared floated gently but defiantly around the wooden room. (Thank goodness, no mikes. But that's another article.)
Ian Bostridge, the legendary English tenor, brought life and depth to the Madwoman, the tragic character searching for her missing son. While I've always enjoyed Bostridge's performing I'm generally not a huge fan of English tenors. They tend to be too light for my personal tastes, a bit cool, and I prefer the darker, fuller tones of a Jonas Kaufmann or Charles Castronovo. But I was moved to tears by the sheer depth, the poignancy, the quality of Bostridge's Madwoman. Maybe his voice is mellowing with age, growing warmer, maybe it was also the space or the character he portrayed, but his performance was earthshattering, one of the great operatic performances I've ever seen. His commitment to the role was complete and complex as he plumbed the depth of despair of a woman in mourning. (As in traditional Noh drama, women are played by men. But thank goodness there wasn't any cross-dressing, Japanoise-y costuming. He said he was a woman and we believed him. End of story.)
Directed and designed by Netia Jones, this production achieved a sense of unity all too uncommon these days. Her projections were as subtle as they were beautiful, the white rectangular stage instantly transformed into a pebbled beach or a rolling river. What I enjoyed most was the cohesiveness and simplicity of the projections. With video quickly overtaking any sort of physically designed sets, I often feel the designer seems to be saying, "Look at me, I used video, I'm so contemporary and hip."
Jones' designs,whether projected on the sail near the alter or on the constructed stage, always added to the music and performance, enhancing them with just the right tone, the right amount of Japanese restraint. Everything, the costumes, the projections was in stark black and white, except for a tattered, red banner held by the Madwoman we later learn was the dead boys play toy. I look forward to Ms. Jones directing at the Met. (Anyone know Mr. Gelb?)
In the end though, all opera (and this is indeed an opera) is about the music. A departure from the composition style of Peter Grimes, Britten composed Curlew in a heterophonic style, heterophony defined as the independent variation on a single melody. Heterophony, a traditional style of Arabic, Thai, and of course, Japanese music, has a fundamental horizontal drive without the traditional Western tonal and vertical harmonic development. A great deal of the musical phrases, the short static burst of energy from the horn, the instrument of the Ferryman, the wailing of the flute, the Madwoman's alter ego, are derived from the opening plain song, Te lucis ante terminum.
This is not a score that develops as a Marriage of Figaro or even Britten's previous works with Arias and Recitatives; it relies on impressionistic, hypnotic tone clusters and percussive instrumentations to create the environment. Is it difficult for Western ears more accustomed to Western composition techniques? Perhaps. But this score is well worth the challenge and the rewards for the open-minded are multifold.
Britten Sinfonia (a happily, coincidental name), conducted from the organ by Martin Fitzpatrick, was beautifully played. It was a wise move to bring the entire group over even though they had to rent the bigger instruments. The score is indeed complex, with its many single, independent voices, endlessly overlapping, but the small band admirably honored their namesake.
As the Met is very much in the news these days (see my piece on Klinghoffer) I want to get on my soap box and say it would be wonderful if the Met had a second performing space, such as Synod House, where they could mount smaller productions like this wonderful and rewarding Curlew River thus giving the audience a different, more intimate musical experience than the vast house at Lincoln Center while still offering their customary world class talent. The Philadelphia Opera has such a space and I saw a remarkable production of Britten's Rape of Lucretia. Maybe the Met could hire Netia Jones as Artistic Director and we can see all of the Britten parables performed there, or maybe even new work commissioned especially for the space? I would be there nightly.