Britten’s Riddle. And Ours.

ItalyItaly Britten, CurlewRiver: Members of the Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro dell’Opera, Rome. Conductor, James Conlon; Staging and décor, Mario Martone; Chorus Master, Roberto Gabbiani; Costumes, Ursula Patzak; Lighting, Pasquale Mari. Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, Rome 27.6. 2013 (JB)


The Madwoman –Benjamin Hulett
The Ferryman –Anthony Michaels-Moore
The Traveller –Philip Addis
The spirit of the Boy – Marta Pacifici / Filippo Chierici
The Abbot –Derek Welton

Teatro dell'Opera - Prove di CURLEW RIVER di Benjamin Britten -FOTO Rome Opera
Teatro dell’Opera – Prove di CURLEW RIVER di Benjamin Britten -FOTO Rome Opera

Innocent suffering is an insuperable riddle. Philosophers, who love nothing better than a riddle, tell us that that shouldn’t stop us trying to understand it. Benjamin Britten tried this in pretty well all his stage works. You might say that it was a theme he was obsessed with. And of all people, Britten well knew that music, like mythology, has a neat way of answering questions while in the same stroke leaving them unanswered. Performers and audiences may be given hints to the riddle but they will also be given as much again to go away and think about. Of course, it takes all the conjuring skills of Britten to keep all the balls in the air. But he does. And I fancy he does it even more than he realises. Might that not be a fair definition of genius?

When Britten and Pears were in Tokyo in 1956 with their friend, Prince Ludwig of Hesse and the Rhine and his Scottish bride, Margaret (the couple were always known to their friends as Lu and Peg), all four of them –but Peg is on record saying Ben more than the others- were overwhelmed by the performance of the Noh play, Sumidagawa. The composer would later note that it was “the touching simple story, the economy of style, the intense slowness of the action, the marvellous skill and control of the performers, the beautiful costumes, the mixture of chanting, speech, singing, which, with the three instruments made up the strange music –it all offered a new “operatic” experience.” He urged William Plomer to retain as many of these qualities as possible in his libretto, which Ben would then set to music with the same worshipful respect for the original.

Medieval, Japanese, Buddhist became medieval, English Christian for the world premiere at Orford Church as part of the 1964 Aldeburgh Festival. Why is it that ancient churches have more mystic resonance than more recent churches? For the Rome Opera, the distinguished film maker and director, Mario Martone, set his production in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli (1348).

With his usual good taste, Martone did not create a set. The Ara Coeli is itself a set, one of those lofty, inspired cathedrals which could only be the home of the Almighty in all its still, silent reaching upwards into eternity. (See photo) The present monks are Franciscans. I was surprised to see the Abbot of the play not dressed as one. He was in a simple modern suit, wearing a clerical collar. (Costumes by Ursula Patzak.) Martone had turned the church round, so to speak, with the audience with their backs to the altar looking towards the huge main entrance door, itself draped in an immense red velvet curtain which forms part of the action. (An architect friend told me that the grand curtain is a permanent part of the church décor.) A roughly hewn sleigh makes up the boat, which moves smoothly on (invisible) wheels through the large acting area, with the aid of two pole-men as well as the actor-singer Ferryman. A suitably dignified performance there from Anthony Michaels-Moore.

Teatro dell'Opera - Prove di CURLEW RIVER di Benjamin Britten -foto Rome Opera
Teatro dell’Opera – Prove di CURLEW RIVER di Benjamin Britten -foto Rome Opera

The action centres round the Madwoman (played by a man wearing a mask in Japan) but Martone has done away with masks, settling for a wig of very long hair, and has him / her enter pushing one of our local supermarket’s trolleys (I live a few yards away from this church) stuffed full of rags, the woman herself dishevelled and distracted. The part was originally played by Peter Pears. Rome had Benjamin Hulett, who in every way was superior. His voice is finer than Sir Peter’s; he is perfectly focused both vocally and dramatically (some very impressive writhing on the floor, which could easily have been stagey, but wasn’t; he was always meticulously in character, picking up on every one of Britten’s nuances.) This is probably the most complete and convincing operatic performance I have seen this year. See photo.

As Lord Harewood has pointed out, she / he has the classical mad scene in reverse; as she goes further into the madness, she works herself into sanity. The huge audience were eating out of Hulett’s hands. Breathtakingly beautiful and profoundly moving. The alarming and sympathetic treatment of the Madwoman handed out by Plomer and Britten brings Blake’s aphorism to mind: If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise. Or on a more mundane, everyday note, remembering that driving into a skid, is the only way you are going to get out of it. Frightening stuff to be sure. That means defying common sense. In the case of the Madwoman, of going further into the madness to escape it. Most originally, indeed uniquely, to my knowledge, Britten conveys all this in music, with Mr Hulett as his ideal interpreter.

The septet made up of principal players of the Rome Opera Orchestra, were all excellent. In particular, the magic flute of Matteo Evangelisti produced the most expressive flutter-tonguing ever heard, in his duet with the Madwoman’s entrance; Roberta Inglese’s harp glissandos (of which there are many) were impressively shaped with rare musicianship and not the usual sloppy mess of the clichéd glissando; Ignacio Martin Ceballos was a master of precision and delight with the small tuned drums and Balinese bells and gongs. All of this excellence, finely balanced and integrated under James Conlon’s baton. The chorus of only eight gave a haunting account of the plainchant which opens the work and from which the rest of the opera emerges. CurlewRiver is a rare jewel, lasting a mere one hour, ten minutes.

A pity Benjamin Britten didn’t live to be a hundred to see and hear these marvels in Teatro dell’Opera’s tribute to his work.

Jack Buckley